Missoula County on Tuesday gave a green light to a request by the Open Aid Alliance to illuminate the courthouse with purple light as part of a national day aimed at overdose awareness.
At the same time, however, commissioners directed staff to craft a policy guiding future requests, fearing that approving one could lead to more requests from far-flung groups seeking to use the public square for their own messaging.
“The reality is, if you’re going to allow one advocacy group to use the courthouse to spread their message, you might get requests from other advocacy groups,” said deputy county attorney Brian West. “If down the line you said no to one of those groups, it might put the county in a position where we end up with some sort of litigation.”
The request by the Open Aid Alliance to light the courthouse on Aug. 31 is innocuous on its face, though county advisors admit it could open the lid to similar requests from other, more controversial groups and potential religious statements.
Without a policy in place guiding the county’s decision on when to grant or deny a request, the county will be forced to consider each request on its face, and that could come down to a value judgment – something the county wants to avoid.
“We’ve been talking about coming up with some sort of policy and guidance on use of the public grounds,” said West. “They (Open Aid Alliance) need to have some sort of decisions from you before we’ll get any policy in place. Keep in mind that you might get further asks and requests down the line.”
According to the request from the Open Aid Alliance, International Overdose Awareness Day aims to remember “the loved ones we have lost and acknowledge the grief of family and friends left behind.”
“This year, the cause is more important than ever, because Covid-19 is leading to increased drug-related harms around the world,” the Alliance wrote in its request. “Despite the challenges posed by Covid-19, we simply cannot ignore the other health crisis staring us in the face.”
The courthouse over the past few years has served as a staging ground for a wide range of demonstrations and public statements.
Three years ago, Missoula high school students marched on the property demanding action on climate change, and homeless advocates have long used the property to recognize “the longest night” and the death of homeless individuals who have died outdoors without shelter.
Last year, the property also saw the Black Lives Matter movement occupy the grounds for several weeks. Their presence was soon joined by Trump supporters brandishing firearms, claiming they were there to protect protesters.
While those actions were contained to the property, none sought to use the building itself as a statement.
“We’re fully aware we need to create a policy, and we need to have conversations on what we can and cannot put into said policy,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “A policy would definitely help decide what direction to go on future asks.”
West said it will take time to craft the policy and, until then, commissioners will be left to consider each individual request on its merit.
“Each time you get a request, you’d have to take that up and decide whether or not it’s something you want to allow,” West said. “But certainly, you start letting one advocacy group do it, you might see other requests down the line from another advocacy group.”