International Municipal Lawyers Association - Local Government Blog

Yellow Ribbons Banned On Town Green

December 6, 2009

Posted By: Dwight Merriam, Partner, Robinson & Cole, LLP

The display of yellow ribbons in remembrance of friends and family serving far away goes back hundreds of years. Dr. Gavin Finley has an interesting website on the history. The American Folklore Center at The Library of Congress has more intriguing history and also cites the 1949 John Wayne and Joanne Dru film,  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

As only Congressional folklorists could, they get a bit carried away.  I got lost when I hit this line:  “The second aspect that makes folklorists reluctant to view this as a traditional expression is the matter of structural inversion.”  I leave it to your further study.

Sing along with me, if you will, this 400-year-old tune, in an arrangement by the incomparable Andrews Sisters.  It reflects the popular view of what the yellow ribbon used to represent before it took on its current meaning.  Or you can listen to it here.

She Wore A Yellow Ribbon

By Russ Morgan
Sung by the Andrews Sisters

Round her neck she wore a yellow ribbon
She wore it in the winter
And the merry month of May
When I asked her, Why the yellow ribbon?
She said, It’s for my lover who is far far away

Far away, far away, far away, far away
She said, It’s for my lover who is far far away
Far away, far away, far away, far away
She said, It’s for my lover who is far far away

When, at first, she met a winsome Johnny
He wasn’t sure her heart was pure
Her eyes were far too bold
So, round her neck
He tied a yellow ribbon
He tied a yellow ribbon
‘Cause it matched her hair of gold
Hair of gold, hair of gold
He tied a yellow ribbon
‘Cause it matched her hair of gold
Hair of gold, hair of gold
He tied a yellow ribbon
For her eyes were far too bold

If, perchance, you spy a lovely maiden
And by her side, there walks with pride
A Johnny strong and gay
And round her neck there is a yellow ribbon
No matter how you love her
Please stay far far away

Far away, far away, far away, far away
No matter how you love her
Please stay far far away
Far away, far away, far away, far away
Her love is for another
So stay far far away
Far far away

Far far away
For her lover who is far far away

Back to the issue at hand.  The Hartford Courant reports that the Borough of Litchfield, Connecticut, has banned yellow ribbons on the town green, “Borough Of Litchfield Board: Get Those Yellow Ribbons Off Our Town Green Trees.”

For six years military mothers and their supporters have been decorating the trees on the town green with yellow ribbons.  Tuesday, the Borough’s legislative board voted to ban the ribbons.

How come?  One mother who asked why said she was told “…the ribbons had to be taken down because they were hurting the trees and that they looked unsightly and worn.”

Board members said that their forester had told them the ribbons were damaging the trees because mold was growing beneath them.  I searched “mold on trees from ribbons” on Google and got 318,000 hits.  I read the first 20 or so.  None mentioned mold under ribbons.  Must be something endemic to the Borough of Litchfield…perhaps the “Litchfield Yellow Ribbon Mold.”  Sounds scary.  Just to make sure I wasn’t missing something, I changed the search to “mold from ribbons on trees.”  Another 318,000 hits.  Nada.

The board identified their forester as Starling Childs from nearby Norfolk, Connecticut.

I know him. He is an expert.  Check out his website.   He maintains the Great Mountain Forest, all 6,000 acres, in nearby Norfolk.  Here’s what he said upon hearing of the ban: “They must be confusing me with some other botanist, because I don’t remember even noticing the ribbons at all and I certainly didn’t comment on them.”

It turns out there is another reason besides the dreaded killer mold as evidenced in this board member’s statement: “What happens next? The Boy Scouts will come along and ask for their ribbons. And the Breast Cancer Awareness people will ask for their pink ribbons. Before you know it, we have this big swatch of colors and Litchfield no longer has a classic green.”

Ah, now I get it — ribbon blight.

This is not the first ban on yellow ribbons.  Prince William County, Virginia’s police chief has banned them on his cruisers because he’s afraid that if his officers show up at a war protest driving cruisers with yellow ribbons “it could be seen as any action we’re going to take is against their cause.” The officers can still hang them on their own cars and in the office.

The City Administrator of Cedarburg, Wisconsin, banned them from all city property after a local restaurant operator complained, saying they were pro-Bush.A unanimous Cedarburg Common Council reversed the ban three weeks later, at least partially, by allowing two yellow ribbons on each of its three welcome signs.

The City of San Mateo, California prohibits private displays on public property but the mayor has simply said he won’t enforce it as to yellow ribbons: “Clearly there are many laws on our books that are enforced when called to our attention, but we don’t have the resources to enforce all the laws we have until somebody brings it up.”

Fieldsboro, New Jersey banned the yellow ribbons on public property in 2003. Mayor “Buddy” Tyler explained: “Where would you draw a line if you started allowing the use of public property to exhibit whatever cause anyone wanted? Suppose someone wants to tie pink ribbons, or black flags, or a Confederate flag or a Nazi flag on public property?”  I can’t find any reports of Fieldsboro reversing itself, though 100 protestors led by none other than Curtis Sliwa of the Guardian Angels have protested.  The have called for the mayor’s resignation and referred to him as “Bonehead Buddy.”

So here is one of the Litchfield yellow-ribbon-banded trees, not yet stripped of its illegal decoration.  This is the only place, so far as I can tell (but I’m no arborist) in the world where the Litchfield Yellow Ribbon Mold exists…

Courtesy of

Government Speech or Public Forum?

November 12, 2008
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Today the US Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case of Pleasant Grove City  v. Summum.  The issue before the court involves whether a city may accept the donation of a monument and place it in a public park without creating a “public forum” that then requires it to place monuments in the park that express differing viewpoints.  In other words, will acceptance and placement of a donated monument become government speech or does the monument retain its character as private speech?

IMLA is proud to be the only national organization representing governments to have filed an amicus brief in this case.  We hope you read it.  Our pro bono author, Mary Jean Dolan wove a masterful argument together to present what we believe is persuasive advocacy in favor of government speech.  In terms of governmental briefs, however, IMLA is not alone.  There are several. Two deserve particular attention, as they illustrate the potential damaging effect the Tenth Circuit’s decision will have on governments if adopted by the Court.  The City of New York in a wonderfully written argument presents a history of its regulation of its parks and their design that includes a discussion of how it decides when and where it will accept and place monuments.  The Solicitor General, describes the extent and breadth of the National Park system and how it would be affected should the Court adopt the erroneous reasoning of the Tenth Circuit.

Although a monument to the Ten Commandments provided the genesis for this case, the case is not about religion, its establishment or its expression; it is about whether a governmental entity that puts signs on its lampposts celebrating city events thereby creates a public forum that now requires it to use its lampposts for others’ messages.  It is about whether a city that decides to honor an important historical event or figure by accepting monuments and placing them in public places has thereby turned those public places into public forums that require it to accept other monuments and place them regardless of viewpoint.   This country accepted and placed one of its greatest icons through a private donation – the Statue of Liberty.  Must we match tributes to “liberty” with statues of tyrants?

While this case is not about religion, you would not know it by looking at the list of amici and the authors of some of the amicus briefs.  Take a look at some of the arguments.  How should the court decide this case?  From IMLA’s perspective the court ought to recognize that when the government speaks, it does not create a public forum requiring it to express other points of view.  Similarly, the simple act of accepting a monument for placement and display does not necessarily create a public forum, but constitutes government speech.  This does not mean that government speech cannot run afoul of the Constitution.  Indeed, the Constitution acts to limit government speech if it were to go so far as to advocate a religious viewpoint – but that is not a question posed in this case.  For an interesting read on the development of the religion clauses in the First Amendment take a look at Founding Faith by Steven Waldman.

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This blog is made possible by the International Municipal Lawyers Association (IMLA), but may include guest bloggers (who are attorneys with experience in local government matters) who might or might not work for IMLA. Their views (and those expressed on this site) do not necessarily express the views of IMLA.