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Muzzle follow-up: North Brookfield will allow drag show at Pride event

North Brookfield Town Hall. Photo (cc) 2009 by John Phelan.

The Rural Justice Network and the ACLU of Massachusetts have settled a lawsuit they filed against town officials in North Brookfield after the town agreed to allow a Pride event to take place on June 29. The town was the recipient of a New England Muzzle Award in December after two members of the three-member board of selectmen said they would vote against a permit because it would include a drag show. It was the second time they voted “no,” having done so previously in advance of a 2023 Pride celebration. They were overturned back then, too.

There is an odd passage in the ACLU’s press release: “According to the settlement, the North Brookfield Planning Board has approved a permit for Small Town Pride on June 29, after the Town stripped the Select Board of the power to approve all future events in local parks in light of prior obstruction by the two Select Board members.” I’m not sure how “the Town” would take power away from the selectmen (yes, the town uses the old-fashioned gendered term) except at town meeting or possibly in a referendum. Otherwise, the selectmen are the town’s highest authority.

The Telegram & Gazette of Worcester reported earlier this week that permitting would be turned over to North Brookfield’s parks and recreation committee, although, again, there’s no explanation as to how that transfer of power came about. T&G reporter Veer Mudambi writes that the committee did not respond to a request for comment.

The ACLU’s full press release follows:

Town agrees to refrain from future interference and alter permitting process following ACLU lawsuit

The Rural Justice Network and ACLU of Massachusetts today announced a settlement in their lawsuit against the Town of North Brookfield, following an earlier announcement that a local Pride event will go forward as planned on June 29. Two members of the town Select Board had unlawfully blocked a permit for this event because it includes plans for a drag show.

According to the settlement, the North Brookfield Planning Board has approved a permit for Small Town Pride on June 29, after the Town stripped the Select Board of the power to approve all future events in local parks in light of prior obstruction by the two Select Board members. In addition, the Town agrees not to interfere with Small Town Pride in the future and will pay damages and attorneys’ fees.

“We are pleased for the assurance that this settlement affords our clients, as well as compensation for harms caused by the unlawful interference by two Select Board members,” said Ruth Bourquin, senior managing attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts.“North Brookfield has now taken steps we hope will ensure that groups like the Rural Justice Network can exercise their right to express themselves equally and openly in public spaces. We look forward to celebrating Small Town Pride this year and for many years to come.”

In October, the Rural Justice Network requested permission to host its fourth annual Small Town Pride celebration on the North Brookfield Town Common in June 2024. During a November Board meeting, after event organizers confirmed the celebration would include a drag performance that would not be hidden from public view in a tent, the chair and then-vice chair refused to approve the Rural Justice Network’s request and explained that the decision meant that the application for the event permit “doesn’t go forward.” This prompted an ACLU lawsuit in December, alleging a pattern of discriminatory treatment, violations of free expression and assembly rights, and unlawful discrimination on the basis of gender.

“In spite of challenges we have faced in the past two years, events like Small Town Pride always make it worth the effort,” said Rob Orpilla, President of the Rural Justice Network. “We’re happy to start making concrete moves for our 2024 event now that we’ve resolved the lawsuit. This is another victory for change in our area.”

Last year, the same chair and vice chair had attempted to deny the Rural Justice Network the right to include any drag performance in its 2023 Small Town Pride celebration simply because the officials personally believe that such performance is “wrong.” The event ultimately went forward as planned after the ACLU and North Brookfield’s legal counsel became involved.

For more information about Rural Justice Network v. Town of North Brookfield, go to:

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  1. Aaron Read

    Interestingly, according to this org chart they do indeed put “resident registered voters” as formally being “above” the Selectmen.

    From a practical perspective I imagine you’re right; the Selectmen are the highest leaders in the Town. But the voters, through a Town Meeting, could conceivably give the permitting authority to a different department and mod the bylaws so that said department’s authority on permitting is not subject to review by the Selectmen. That would presumably be legal to do and it does sound like that’s what they’ve done.

    The unspoken part of this is that the Selectmen are still higher in the org chart so they have the ability to hire and fire Town employees in that other department. How legal, and also how politically acceptable, it would be for a Selectman to then fire someone in Parks & Rec for approving these permits…when it is now expressly their authority to approve/deny those permits…is an open question. Presumably “at will” employment rules still apply, so it’s probably legal according to the letter of the law. But it would also be so obviously vindictive that it would be considered a hostile work environment and that’s NOT legal by the letter of the law. Certainly one would hope if the Selectmen pulled that kind of nonsense it would cost them dearly at the ballot box as well…but these days I wouldn’t be terribly hopeful.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Aaron, town meeting is the highest authority in a town. But they can’t just do stuff — business has to be put before them in form of warrant articles. I suspect that the selectmen willingly gave this up and the ACLU mischaracterized it. But that’s just a wild guess.

      • Aaron Read

        Makes sense. (thumbs up) It’s a bit disappointing though since it kind of sweeps the problem under the rug. After all, North Brookfield still has two rampaging bigots in the highest level of their town government. I highly doubt they limit their hatred to just gay pride. 🙁

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