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Mayor Walsh renegotiates Olympic deal

Speech limits ended, vote option added

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh. Steven Senne/Associated Press/file 2014

Mayor Martin J. Walsh has renegotiated an agreement he signed in December with the US Olympic Committee, removing language that seemed to bar city employees from speaking ill of Boston’s Olympic proposal and adding a clause to recognize the potential for a voter referendum on the Olympic bid.

“Now it is clear that this new agreement doesn’t place any type of so-called gag order,” the mayor said in an interview Tuesday. “I think the issue of clarifying the language is very important for the transparency of what we want to do here in Boston in pursuing the Olympics.”

The original “joinder agreement” between Boston and the USOC stated that the City of Boston and its employees “shall not make” any statements that “reflect unfavorably upon, denigrate or disparage, or are detrimental to the reputation” of the International Olympic Committee, the USOC, or the Olympic Games. City employees and officers were to promote the Olympic movement “in a positive manner.”

The mayor also insisted that the agreement include an explicit acknowledgment that he does not control whether a voter initiative on the Olympics could go forward to the ballot. Olympic opponents and skeptics have floated the idea of a citywide or statewide referendum on the bid, with one option being a proposal to ban the use of taxpayer dollars to put on the Games.


Disclosures by the Globe in January that the deal appeared to restrict speech sounded a sour note in what local Olympic organizers had hoped would be a triumphant time, just after the USOC selected Boston over San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and two-time Olympic host Los Angeles to represent the United States in a worldwide competition to host the 2024 Summer Games.

Walsh at the time dismissed the offending language as contract “boilerplate,” said it was unenforceable, and assured city employees they could speak as they wished.


Still, free speech advocates roundly denounced the language and urged Walsh to have it removed. Sarah Wunsch, staff lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said at the time the so-called gag order seemed blatantly unconstitutional.

By the end of January, Walsh said he was working to edit the agreement.

The mayor said Tuesday that his corporation counsel’s office spent about a month working on new language with the USOC and the local Olympic organizing committee, Boston 2024.

The new agreement, which Walsh said would be signed this week, strikes the full paragraph that purported to direct how city employees should or should not speak of the bid, according to a copy of the revised agreement.

In a significant addition to the agreement, Walsh said he insisted on modifying a section that outlines the mayor’s authority to sign the deal with the USOC on behalf of the City of Boston.

The new language, written in dense legalese, recognizes that the voters could weigh in on the city’s Olympic bid at the ballot box: “Notwithstanding the foregoing, the City explicitly does not represent or warrant that a public referendum or initiative petition, binding or non-binding, related to the IOC Bid will not occur at the State or local level.”

Walsh said the day after Boston was named the US bid city that he did not want a referendum. He has since clarified that “the voters of Massachusetts and Boston will decide what the next course is to take.”


Wunsch said Tuesday that she was “pleased [city officials] responded to the criticism” and revised the agreement.

“It’s too bad they didn’t notice it the first time around,” she said. “Something like that should set off alarm bells.”

A local opposition group, No Boston Olympics, said in a statement that “the USOC is a terrible partner for the City of Boston, but we are pleased they have reversed course on the First Amendment. We regret that City Hall has to deal with the USOC’s tomfoolery and appreciate the steps taken to improve the agreement, including formal acknowledgment of the ability of voters to stop the bid.”

The Walsh administration and the USOC also agreed to strike a paragraph from the original deal that could be read in such a way as to forbid the city from releasing documents pertaining to its agreements with the USOC, according to Walsh and the documents.

Boston 2024 chief executive Richard A. Davey said in a statement that the revisions are “indicative of the true spirit of partnership and cooperation among the City of Boston, the USOC, and Boston 2024 in advancing the shared goal of bringing the Olympic and Paralympic Games to Boston.”

City government and Boston 2024 have each launched their own series of public meetings on the Olympic bid. Local organizers plan to further develop plans for the Games over the next two years, before the US proposal will be formally filed with the International Olympic Committee. The IOC will meet in Peru in mid-2017 to choose the host of the 2024 Games. Officials in Rome have said they will submit a bid. Other competition could come from Paris, Berlin, and Budapest.


Mark Arsenault can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.