Clarifying Confusion in Greenwich on Illegal Signs and Protected Free Speech

On Memorial Day thousands of Greenwich residents woke up to find American Flags in front of their houses. Attached to the flags were 9″ x 6″ postcards explaining the flag was a gift from the Metalios Group, part of Houlihan Lawrence.

Instructions on the card said those who wanted the flag picked up the following weekend could scan the QR code on the card and either either email or call the Metalios Group to schedule a pickup.

A good many people were happy for the gift and didn’t give it a second thought, but the town’s Zoning Enforcement Officer Jodi Couture saw more than a free flag.

“I would not consider a flag to be a sign, but once they put the flyer on it I would. I would say that these were a violation of the sign regulations.”

Jodi Couture, Greenwich Zoning Enforcement Officer

The Town has strict rules about commercial signs, most notably house for sale signs. Mr. Couture has said that although many people are under the impression that real estate for sale signs are not allowed, it is permissible to post a three-ft square sign that simply says “For Sale” and a phone number.

Commercial banner hung from lamp post on Greenwich Avenue.

However, once logos or company names are added, that is considered an advertisement and therefore a violation.

The Re-Imagine Greenwich committee has discussed hanging informational banners from the lamp posts on Greenwich Avenue, but stopped short of including sponsor names on the banners. Previously, there was some controversy in 2019 when the Think Greenwich PR campaign sold banners to businesses.

They noted that as soon as a sponsor name goes on the informational banner it is considered a commercial sign and not allowed. Instead that committee is considering distributing stickers to businesses to put in their store windows to indicate their sponsorship.

Signs along Putnam Avenue appeared the morning of June 6, 2021

In the past few weeks there have been conversations and newspaper headlines about signs and free speech.

Signs saying “Stand up Greenwich” and “Ban Critical Race Theory” were installed anonymously and allowed by the Town to stay in place, though many have vanished.

It is worth noting that campaign signs are protected. The Town does not regulate election signage.

Also, non profit lawn signs are sometimes approved by the First Selectman’s office. In those instances, the signs must be up no more than 15 days before an event, and be removed within 24 hours afterward. The Highway department has taken signs down in the past if they impede sight lines.

Mr. Couture has said that commercial signs are not permitted and will be removed if seen or reported.

American flags with post cards from The Metalios Group on Memorial Day.

Joy Metalios responded to a request for comment saying she had had received an overwhelming positive response to the American flags.

She pointed to a thread on Next Door about the flags that got 600 Likes and many messages of gratitude.

Metalios said that 2021 was the fifth year she has distributed flags, though she skipped 2020 due to the pandemic.

She said that over the years she had increased the flag distribution from 1,500 flags to 4,000 in response to positive feedback.

She added that every year her team gives “a sizable donation to the non profit organization ‘Homes for our Troops,'” though she did not indicate the amount. According to their website, the mission of Homes for Our Troops is to build and donate specially adapted custom homes for severely injured post-9/11 Veterans.

While there were many messages of appreciation, others were offended.

Anne Eddy said, “The flag was appreciated; the oversized postcard was not. Like many of us, I have a father, grandfather, aunts, uncles, and friends who fought or lost their lives in battle. They gave honorably, humbly – and anonymously.”

Tom McGarrity said he could absolutely see how people would appreciate the gesture of a gifted flag on Memorial Day.

“That’s not the issue,” he said. “The issue is using Memorial Day to grow your business.”

McGarrity said if the Metalios Group was truly being altruistic, they should not have attached their name to the flags and donated all proceeds they might make through home sale’s commissions to an appropriate cause for veterans.

“It stretches credulity to think that the Metalios Group was not thinking about growing their business through this initiative,” he said.

McGarrity said he complained to The Metalios Group after he spotted a flag and postcard in front of his house, writing to them, saying, “I think it is completely inappropriate to use Memorial Day—a day to commemorate our fallen soldiers—as an advertising gimmick for your business. If you really wanted to be generous on this holiday, you would have made a donation without any recognition. Please come and remove the flag you put at our mailbox.”

Metalios explained the reason the cards with the Metalios Group contact information was attached to the flags. She said two years ago she met with the Riverside Association to discuss picking up the flags for those who did not know how to dispose of them.

“There was also discussion about the flags starting to touch the ground over time,” she said. “We went around and picked up the flags, but then residents were displeased as they wanted to keep their flag. This is why this year we printed the card to say out of respect for the flag, we would have a volunteer pick it up for them the following weekend if they wanted us to. It is not to get the homeowner’s information.  We understand the significance of a fallen flag, so next year we will be sure to also add an additional note on the card: ‘We ask that you please bring your flag inside so it does not fall on the ground, to ensure we honor and respect our American flag, soldiers, and country.'”

Indeed, the US Dept of Veterans Affairs notes that Public Law 94-344, known as the Federal Flag Code, says, “One should never let the flag touch anything beneath it: ground, floor, water, merchandise. Never fasten or display it in a way that will permit it to be damaged or soiled. Never use the flag for advertising or promotion purposes or print it on paper napkins, boxes or anything else intended for temporary use and discard.”

Ms Metalios said she had added a logo to the post cards at the request of the Board of Realtors.

“A few years back, we were notified by the Greenwich Board of Realtors that the card needed to have not only the name of my team but the name of my brokerage, which is why it is all on the card – I preferred to keep it more low key.”

On Friday, Mr. Couture, the town’s Zoning Enforcement Officer, commented in an email saying, “I would not consider a flag to be a sign, but once they put the flyer on it I would. I would say that these were a violation of the sign regulations.”

Contributed photo

Dean Gamanos, Vice Commander of American Legion Post 29, said veterans abide by the protocols for display of the American flag.

“We should  love our neighbors and always show respect for other people,” Gamanos said. “Our nation stands for these time-honored principles. But we should also show respect for our flag, which is a symbol of our nation and its principles. Many men and women have fought and died for that symbol and what it stands for. We should respect the flag just as we respect other people and try to follow guidelines for its use.”

“Encouraging the display of our flags is of course commendable, but also creating a situation which allows our flag to be littered about and used for commercial gain is abhorrent,” Gamanos added.

Ms Metalios said that out of 4,000 flags, she only received two calls two calls from residents who felt the flag was used as an advertisement.

“I have immense respect for those who serve or who have served our country,” she said. “My niece is a graduate of the Naval Academy and is presently a JAG officer and my husband’s uncle is a retired Colonel.”

“I see it as a way to raise awareness for a good cause,” she continued. “It saddens me that they think it is a way to capture addresses. If we wanted their names and addresses, we would simply look at their tax cards. And as far as capturing emails, we only send emails to those who opt in to our newsletter.”