Using Missoula courthouse for a cause pushes county closer to policy
(Missoula Current) A new request to light the Missoula County Courthouse with a specific color tied to a cause has again moved the county closer to crafting a policy on how such requests are handled and granted.
Jason Hauser, the county's director of facilities, received a request to light the courthouse green for a week in early November to recognize the nation's veterans.
“It's in support of veterans,” he said. “There's been a document going around asking all government entities to do this – to light up a portion of the government building in green.”
The National Association of Counties is sponsoring the event and the Montana Association of Counties has since asked all 56 Montana counties to participate.
The county last year lit the courthouse in purple at the request of the Open Aid Alliance to recognize overdose awareness. While the request was non-controversial, it prompted county leaders to urge commissioners to create a policy guiding how such decisions were made.
The concern remains that a more controversial and divisive request could be made to the county. Given its approval of past requests to light the courthouse for a cause, it could place the county in legal jeopardy if it denied other requests.
“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,” deputy county attorney Brian West advised last year. “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.”
This August, with the number of requests growing to use the courthouse for special promotions, political events and causes, commissions finally asked staff to draft a policy guiding future uses.
This week, West said that policy is in the works.
“One of the reasons we want you to concider making an action on this, one way or another, is because in the U.S. Supreme Court case about what constitutes government speech versus private entity speech, making decisions is one of the factors they're looking at,” West told commissioners.
West said the decision-making process should be factored into policy to protect the county. Up until now, the requests have been handled on an ad-hoc basis and all have been approved.
“If these things happen kind of automatically without a government board looking at them, it changes some of the analysis for courts,” West said. “In order to maintain your control over what happens at the courthouse, we want you to make decisions about these sorts of things.”
The county itself has used the courthouse as a statement, most recently lighting the clock tower in blue and yellow as a visible symbol of support for Ukraine.
So far, the requests have been rather innocuous, but if the facility is open to one cause, then the county fears it would be hypocritical to deny access to another group, even if was along the lines of the KKK, the Proud Boys or some other fringe element.
“We're working on a policy,” West said on Tuesday.