Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Mom told to take down ribbons

Published in the Current and the American Journal

A South Portland mother who has been putting up yellow ribbons around the
city to support her soldier son has been told by the city to take them down.

When the war in Iraq first started, Valerie Swiger’s son Jason, 21, a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, was serving there. Back home, his mother hung yellow ribbons around the city as a sign of support for all of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

City officials say there is an ordinance on the books that prevents displaying any personal message on public property – including notices about garage sales and missing pets – and while her ribbons have been up for some time, they now have to come down.

Swiger said she never knew about the law, which has been on the books since the 1960s, and told several city officials of her intentions, but none of them ever told her she couldn’t hang the ribbons.

In April, she said, she went to the City Council to tell them about her ribbon campaign. Nobody said a word to her then. She even got a call from
someone at City Hall – she won’t say who – asking if they could have a couple of ribbons to hang there.

Swiger didn’t hear anything but support until City Clerk Susan Mooney called recently to say someone had complained that the ribbons were
getting dirty and tattered. Swiger offered to replace them.

“I feel they should remain up. It’s not over,” Swiger said. She was especially sensitive about the issue because Jason had called the day before to say he was headed back to Iraq.

Swiger said Mooney told her the ribbons couldn’t be placed on utility poles, to which Swiger agreed. Swiger said it wasn’t until the next day Mooney called with the bad news: The ribbons were against the law.

Now Swiger is being told she had violated the law from the first day she put the ribbons up. City Manager Jeff Jordan said police and code enforcement officers do enforce the ordinance, though he said it’s not a “high priority.”

The ribbons violate the ordinance, Jordan said, because they make a personal statement. “We probably should have” told Swiger when she first put the ribbons up, Jordan said. “We might have gotten a bit caught up” in emotion as war began, he said.

He encouraged Swiger to continue her ribbon displays, as long as they’re not on town property.

“They can be put in lots of different places. Just put them on private property,” Jordan said. “Don’t put the city in the position to regulate
content on public property.”

Swiger doesn’t think the ribbons are offensive. “That yellow ribbon doesn’t say Republican. It doesn’t say Democrat. It doesn’t say war. It doesn’t say Bush.” What it does say is, “we respect what you’re doing. Hurry home. We’re waiting.”

District 1 Councilor David Jacobs, who represents the area including Swiger’s home, said he is sympathetic to Swiger, but must stick to
the law. “Even though the ribbons are intended to send a positive message, they are still a symbol of personal expression that’s prohibited by city ordinance.”

He said allowing the yellow ribbons puts the city in a bad position if anyone else wants to put up a sign. “Clearly the city has been looking the other way,” Jacobs said. But that will end now, he said.

Swiger stands firm. “I am not going to take those ribbons down,” she said. Further, she wants a change to the city ordinance that will allow the ribbons. She also wants yellow ribbons to be displayed at public buildings and on the “Welcome to South Portland” signs along roads at the city’s boundaries.

District 4 Councilor Chris Bowring has asked the council to discuss the matter at a September workshop. He wants to see if the language could be modified or interpreted to allow the ribbons.

Swiger said the message is important, and helps keep the soldiers motivated and alive. “I think they deserve a little respect.”