Decorated bricks spur free speech discussions

Decorated+bricks+spur+free+speech+discussions

By Lucas Irizarry, Staff Reporter

In early 2021 the Sunset Hills Art Committee asked residents to help decorate a new playground at Watson Trail Park by painting a brick for a mural, with some bricks now being called into questions by residents for being “offensive.” 

The bricks, now all combined into a circular mural, include ones featuring Donald Trump, ‘Make America Great Again” and Jesus. Ward 2 Alderman Christine Lieber posted photos of the bricks on her Facebook page to gauge public opinion.

The Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to keep the bricks in place Aug. 24, after discussions about freedom of speech and the overall goal of the bricks in the first place.

Several aldermen pointed out the rules of the brick painting did not say political or religious expression were not allowed, so changing the rules now could result in controversy.

Ward 1 Alderman Ann McMunn said it’s unfortunate the bricks were created, but they shouldn’t be taken down.

“I think it’s a little sad this playground is being overshadowed by this brick discussion and sad that somebody would use this type of arena to make any kind of political statement,” McMunn said. “That being said, I don’t think you can change the rules after the game. It’s a learning experience. If this is something we want to curb in the future the guidelines need to be stricter.”

Ward 4 Alderman Fred Daues said the board probably would have changed the rules to disallow political or religious statements beforehand.

“If Gerald (Brown, director of parks and recreation) … said that he was going to have a brick patio of which anything went on a political or religious basis, I’m not so sure we would have approved that,” Daues said. “I’m not sure we would have approved that vehicle for political expression in our park system.”

Daues said he was disappointed in Brown for putting the city in a difficult position in this instance.

Freedom of speech was referenced several times throughout the discussion, but Mayor Pat Fribis said it may not actually be a constitutional issue. She said once the city received the bricks they are city possessions, so it should be allowed to decide what political or religious statements are referenced.

“I don’t think, if they are removed, that we are stopping or stifling anyone’s freedom of speech,” Fribis said. “If we put them on display … we are saying this is our community and this is how we view it. We might offend some people in our community if we have certain bricks there.”

City Attorney Robert Jones researched the issue and did find a related Supreme Court case. He said a city park is a traditional public forum so the city couldn’t stop literature handouts or speeches, but donated property like the bricks are city property and the Supreme Court allows their removal.

“It doesn’t say we must remove them, but we do have that right,” Jones said. “It’s an issue that has garnered a lot of discussion and press in recent years because of monuments that are unpopular. We would be protected to remove them.”