The removal of the Confederate flag from the State House won Greenville its bid for March Madness this spring, but the flag’s appearance outside the arena where the basketball tournament was being played has prompted the city to enact new regulations limiting displays in city parking garages.
On March 19, a group of protesters flew a Confederate battle flag from atop a city parking garage overlooking the Bon Secours Wellness Arena as fans entered and exited.
The display brought national attention during what has been widely hailed as a successful hosting effort by the city.
The City Council on Monday gave initial approval to an ordinance “managing signage and other displays” in city parking garages as a result. The council must vote one more time for the regulations to be final.
“The flag display in March prompted the city to examine its rules for municipal garage signage and displays,” City Attorney Mike Pitts told The Greenville News. “While the city certainly respects the free speech rights all citizens enjoy, the city may, consistent with the First Amendment, impose reasonable regulations in the city’s garages in order to address concerns about safety and aesthetics.”
The city also has “an important interest in making sure that messages from third parties are not inadvertently attributed to the city,” Pitts said.
The city’s garages are operated as an enterprise collecting fees and haven’t been designated as public forums for expression, the proposed ordinance states. The city, according to the proposal, has a right to enact the regulations so long as they are “view-point neutral.”
The tournament shined a national spotlight on Greenville as two of the Final Four teams — the University of South Carolina and University of North Carolina — advanced from the city’s opening round pool.
This spring’s NCAA Tournament was the first hosted in Greenville in 15 years.
The NCAA had banned the award of any bid in South Carolina in response to the Confederate flag flying prominently on Statehouse grounds at a major intersection in Columbia.
The ban was lifted after lawmakers voted in July 2015 to remove the flag, following the massacre of nine black church-goers in Charleston at the hands of a white supremacist proclaiming the beginning of a race war.
The display of the flag from the parking garage in Greenville this year prompted the NCAA at the time to release a statement supporting the city.
The NCAA prohibited display on the arena grounds but couldn’t control what happened out of areas it didn’t control.
“The NCAA is proud and excited to host championships in the state of South Carolina once again,” Dan Gavitt, NCAA senior vice president of basketball, said in the statement. “We are committed to assuring that our events are safe and accessible to all. No symbols that compromise that commitment will be permitted to be displayed on venue property that the tournament controls. Freedom of speech activities on public property in areas surrounding the arena are managed by the city of Greenville and we are supportive of the city’s efforts.”
The display restrictions are similar to efforts enacted in Charleston, Pitts said.