Yellow ribbons pulled from city green amid speech dispute

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LITCHFIELD, Conn. (TUSEN) — A symbol of support for U.S. troops has become the centerpiece of a contentious debate over free speech in this small hill town in northwest Connecticut.

Yellow ribbons have adorned the trees of the historic Litchfield Town Green since the start of the US Iraq War in 2003, placed there by families with relatives serving overseas in the military.

But the five remaining ribbons were quietly removed Thursday by a local official enforcing an ordinance banning signs and other displays on the green, which dates to the early 1700s. The concern? Allowing ribbons opens the door to any manifestation of free speech, no matter how hateful or offensive.

The tape controversy has erupted occasionally over the years and has recently resurfaced in the borough of Litchfield. In December, Acting Director Gayle Carr and the Burghers’ Council voted to renew the ordinance’s enforcement. Seventeen people in the audience spoke against removing the ribbons at the December meeting, and none spoke in favor, according to borough records.

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Val Caron, a retired electrician whose son is in the Air Force, had been tending to tapes with his wife for more than a decade. He said he was considering legal action to put the ribbons back in place.

“What they did was they slapped everyone in the army,” Caron said. “There are a lot of people who are very upset. … It is not finished.

Carr removed the ribbons Thursday morning, putting them in a backpack as she walked her dog on a nearly deserted town green.

“When it comes to a public space like this, if you allow some speech, you have to allow all speech,” Carr said in a phone interview. “But under (the borough’s) code, we’re allowed not to speak, and that doesn’t discriminate against anyone.”

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Carr added that military families can still hold signs, walk or hold vigils on the putting green — they just can’t express themselves “in the form of signs and ribbons and signs attached to things.”

The tradition of displaying yellow ribbons to honor service members across the country goes back many generations. Free speech controversies have occasionally arisen, usually involving bans on political posters on public lands.

In 2004, for example, the National Park Service removed yellow ribbons welcoming Iraqi soldiers from utility poles near the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in Iowa, saying it was a political statement.

In 2009, a different group of Litchfield bourgeois banned ribbons from green trees in the town, citing the potential for a proliferation of free speech displays as well as possible damage to trees. After a flurry of opposition and national media coverage, officials agreed in 2010 to allow five yellow ribbons—one honoring each military branch—on green.

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Two years later, borough officials removed four of the five ribbons. An outcry of opposition arose again, and the bourgeois relented and allowed the five ribbons.

Interviewees near the Litchfield Town Green on Thursday weighed in on the yellow ribbon debate.

“I would like to see less attention to ribbons and more to helping veterans,” said Jeff Russak, owner of Lawrence Jeffrey Estate Jewelers across the green and who grew up in a family with many military members. “I’m all for putting up a yellow ribbon. You can put them in your garden.

Bibby Veerman, 77, a longtime borough resident, said she was fine with the decision to remove the ribbons. She said the ribbons were to be removed when service members returned home.

“Put them somewhere else,” she said. “I don’t think it should be a major issue.”

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