Ames Human Relations Commission Discusses Bike Night Confederate Flag Controversy

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Confederate flags for sale by Cool Biker Stuff, the Milford-based vendor invited to Ames Bike Night in June. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

Ames’ Human Relations Commission held a special meeting Monday afternoon to discuss the controversy surrounding a vendor’s display of a Confederate flag at the Main Street Cultural District’s first of four Bike Nights this summer — an issue first raised by the Informer on the day after the June event.

At the meeting, commissioners said they still plan to hold a series of community forums on racism and freedom of speech that was requested by the City Council at its meeting following the event and after our follow-up commentary about how the MSCD and Ames Convention and Visitors Bureau, another of the event’s sponsors, should publicly address the Confederate flag vendor. On Monday, members of the MSCD said they recently held a separate meeting to discuss establishing a vendor policy that the group first announced on the day of the council meeting when it apologized for the flag’s display. No commission action was taken Monday; the commission’s chairman, former city attorney John Klaus, clarified that this was not an investigation into any complaint about a discriminatory action, something he said the commission rarely faces.

There was, however, a discussion lasting approximately 30 minutes, during which event sponsors downplayed the controversy over the vendor, Milford-based Cool Biker Stuff, and others urged caution with devising a vendor policy that might create overbroad and unconstitutional restrictions on public expression.

“To my knowledge, nothing really per se happened at the event,” said Julie Weeks, director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, which unlike the MSCD did not issue a statement about the Confederate flag following the June event.

Adding to Weeks’ comment, Andrea Gronau, store manager at Main Street shop Worldly Goods and the MSCD’s promotions chair, said, “I was there the entire time and no one approached me the entire evening … and expressed any interest or concerns whatsoever.”

After the event, however, Gronau said, the American Legion, which is located on the same block of Main Street as Worldly Goods, expressed the concern that the vendor was selling an article of clothing that appeared to have been an American flag. The Legion, Gronau said, had asked the vendor to stop displaying the item, but it did not. (Cool Biker Stuff was not present at the latest Bike Night event in July and it’s likely it wouldn’t have been invited back regardless of the Confederate flag controversy because the vendor’s truck was left blocking Main Street when it was opened to traffic.)

Dan Culhane, president and CEO of the Ames Chamber of Commerce, an organization that shares a Main Street building and is closely affiliated with the MSCD, said that in his 10 years in his position he wasn’t aware of a similar controversy arising. He wasn’t at the June event, he said, but imagined that if someone had come forward during it with a complaint that it would have been addressed. Commissioner Amy Harris-Tehan countered, “When there are symbols used such as the Confederate flag, the people who are offended or hurt by it are oftentimes not going to come forward because they feel intimidated, or they feel insecure.” They also may not know who to go to to voice a complaint, she said — something the HRC could help the MSCD with in the future. “That’s fair,” Culhane replied.

“There’s a little difference between having a vendor policy, which most organizations do, and limiting someone’s freedom of speech,” said Cindy Hicks, director of the MSCD.

The MSCD is a private organization that has the freedom to choose which vendors it wishes to have at events it puts on. But Bike Night has been granted money by the city of Ames for the current fiscal year, and once a vendor is on a public street First Amendment considerations could come into play.

After June’s Bike Night, the MSCD said in its statement that it was “in the final stages of developing our policies to keep future vendors from making overt political statements at our events.” That raised concerns from residents and council members that the policy could end up violating free speech protections if it wasn’t carefully crafted, among other questions such as the display of political floats at the Fourth of July parade.

Lynne Carey, director of the public library, cautioned that such a policy might go too far. “What is celebratory to one person is offensive to another, certainly we run into that over and over at the library,” she said. (Last year, after the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right to same-sex marriage countrywide, the library displayed a gay pride flag that received a mostly positive response but at one point was tossed in the trash.)

“We absolutely would like the city to be seen as protecting First Amendment rights for everyone,” Harris-Tehan said. “You mentioned earlier about everything is going to be offensive to someone. But there is a distinction between offensive and a symbol that’s been used for institutional racism and hate crimes historically.”

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.