On January 18, 2016, a “Black Lives Matter” banner was hung on Northampton City Hall in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. As local residents may know, the banner has since caused a controversy in the city, as it is perceived by some as spreading an anti-police message. More recently, the president of the Northampton Police Union 390 sent a request to Mayor David Narkewicz to hang a banner that says, “National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Week.” Setting aside the political issues involved, this situation raises interesting labor law questions.
Under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), employers may restrict employees and organizations, including unions, from posting messages or distributing literature on their premises; such policies, however, must be applied in a non-discriminatory fashion. Thus, once an employer allows non-work related messages to be displayed by employees or any outside entities, the employer potentially opens its premises up for the display of union messages as well.
The City of Northampton, of course, is the employer of the Northampton Police. The “Black Lives Matter” banner belongs to the Western Massachusetts chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, which, according to its website, is “a national network of groups and individuals organizing White people for racial justice.” Therefore, should Mayor Narkewicz deny the Union’s request to post its banner, the City may potentially find itself before the National Labor Relations Board. Historically, disputes about the dissemination of union-related communications have involved employer bulletin boards, telephones and, more recently, e-mail systems; however, the argument could be made that the front façade of City Hall is just as much the employer’s “communication equipment” as a bulletin board. After all, it was used to communicate the “Black Lives Matter” message, residents’ different interpretations of it notwithstanding.
The situation at the Northampton City Hall is a great example of how ubiquitous the laws governing labor and employment relations are.