Confederate Flag Raises Questions about City Contract with MSU

Wednesday, June 22, 2016, 11:51 am
Alice Dreger

Above: Councilmember Ruth Beier (right) talking to ELPD officers at the Zemer root beer stand last summer

The controversy over a vendor’s display of the Confederate flag at last year’s downtown Folk Festival arose at East Lansing’s City Council again last night, as Council members discussed how the City might push MSU to select only vendors unlikely to display such a politically-charged image.

East Lansing is set to provide $15,000 in direct support to the MSU-managed Great Lakes Folk Festival. In addition to that money, East Lansing provides emergency services and ground work to the Festival.

Last night, with the Festival agreement between MSU and the City on Council’s “consent agenda,” Council had been expected to simply approve the contract without discussion. But Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Beier pulled the item off the consent agenda in order to discuss it.

Last summer, Beier had organized a protest against the Zemer’s Homemade Rootbeer booth because owner Chris Zemer refused to take down a Confederate flag display in his booth’s window. Only a few weeks before the festival, Dylann Roof murdered nine African-Americans at the historic “Mother Emanuel” AME Church in South Carolina. The slayings set off a national backlash against the Confederate flag because Roof, who expressed white supremacist views, had proudly posed for photos with the flag.

Complicating matters at the Festival dispute last year, East Lansing Police used an anti-advertising ordinance to tell Beier and her fellow protestors that they could not hand out literature at the Festival discouraging people from buying from Zemer.

At Council last night, Beier asked City Attorney Tom Yeadon at Council whether, if MSU “chooses a vendor we find abhorrent or distasteful, this [agreement as written] leaves us no recourse?” Yeadon said her understanding was correct.

At that, Beier asked Yeadon what could be added to the agreement to give East Lansing “veto power if we needed it.” Yeadon suggested adding language “something to the effect of obtaining approval of the City of East Lansing for the vendor list.”

Mayor Mark Meadows, a lawyer, said in response that “we need to be very careful with regard to First Amendment rights.” He said he wasn’t sure that adding such a clause to the contract with MSU “is going to solve the issue we are looking for here, which would be difficult for any government to deal with.”

But Beier said that if the City was going to be financially supporting the Festival, it made sense to keep out vendors whose display of political signs go against the majority viewpoint of the City’s citizens.

Councilmember Erik Altmann asked Meadows rhetorically, “There is no First Amendment right to be invited to a folk festival?”

Meadows replied, “no,” but added, “there is a right to not be discriminated against because you’ve exercised a First Amendment right. I think it is still dicey, but we can deal with it.” He said MSU could be pushed to establish requirements for displays.

Beier replied, “To be completely candid, the First Amendment display was just the beginning of the issue. Everyone has a right to believe what they want.” But, she said, “It was the barbaric behavior [of the vendor] afterward that made me want to amend the agreement.”

At last year’s Festival, Zemer argued vociferously with protestors in a scene that turned increasingly ugly. Beier eventually closed her protest, feeling it had failed to cut into Zemer’s business. MSU graduate student Dee Jordan, who had originally raised the concern about the flag display, continued to pursue the matter, including appealing to then-Mayor Nathan Triplett for assistance.

Last night, Meadows reiterated it was certainly possible to amend the agreement with MSU to encourage the Folk Festival organizers to “establish standards with regard to their vendors.”

Councilmember Susan Woods, who was on Council with Beier during last year’s Festival, said to Meadows last night, “We need to talk to MSU. This was a really big issue.” Woods opined, “I don’t think they’ll hire the guy [Zemer] again.”

Meadows suggested the City Attorney could come up with language to review the City staff to review the vendor list. Asked by Yeadon and Altmann if Beier was sure she wanted staff, and not Council, to review the vendor list, Beier said yes—staff should review it.

Council voted unanimously to have the City Attorney manage the issue and to have the contract then signed by the City Manager and City’s Chief Financial Officer.