July 05, 2006

Independence Day Victory In Village

As the rockets' red glare illuminated the night sky this Fourth of July, a group of residents was celebrating a victory reflecting their basic rights as Americans Ė the right to freedom of speech during an Independence Day parade in Southampton

Sag Harbor attorney Jim S. Henry last week took a case representing nine plaintiffs, including members of the Unitarian Congregationalist church, East End veterans, and the Bill of Rights Defense committee regarding their right to march in a Fourth of July parade in the Village of Southampton.

The group said that the Village of Southampton, Mayor Mark Epley, and the Southampton Village Commission of Veterans' Patriotic Events refused to give them a permit to march when they applied several weeks ago, stating that "no political propaganda" would be allowed in the patriotic event.

Standing up for their rights, the group banded together and Henry submitted a complaint to the federal district court in Islip, where they were ordered to show cause.

Next, said Henry, Southampton Village Attorney Richard Depetris said Epley offered to allow the plaintiffs to march in the parade. "We declined that offer, because the mayor did not have the authority," to issue the permit. The commission, he said, had that authority. The Commission of Veterans' Patriotic Events was organized in 2004 and, said Henry, because the group is a government-funded commission, it "puts unique constraints on their ability to discriminate against different groups."

On Monday, federal Judge Joanna Seybert organized a conference call where all parties signed a joint motion for entry of a stipulated order from the federal judge, who ruled that the "plaintiffs shall be permitted to march and freely engage in political speech at the July 4 parade to be held on July 4 2006 in the Village of Southampton."

William Frankenbach, head of the Commission commented: "We are very disappointed." The commission, he added didn't want to get into an "all-day, all-night confrontation," with the plaintiffs and agreed to the conference call.

Frankenbach said the hope is that the groups in question would march "peacefully." In years past, he said, they have carried signs with slogans such as "Blood for Oil," "Bash Bush," and "Close Guantanema Bay.' "Is that part of an Independence Day parade?" he asked.

Henry said while he "is not an authority on signs carried in the past," in his experience, the signs carried sported messages such as "Freedom of Speech," "Restore Tax Credits to Veterans," "Freedom of Religion," and "Support Our Troops."

Of Frankenbach, he said: "We are not appointing him the bureau of wants and needs. Nobody died and made him censor."

Frankenbach said the battle is far from over, and the parade was just a one-time win: "We will go to court."

Henry said the case is going to continue before a federal district judge, when the plaintiffs will be represented by the ACLU. "I believe we have a very strong case," he said.

And, on the eve of Independence Day, Henry said an important war had been won. "We're feeling like the judicial system succeeded in defending our rights. It's an important victory. Everyone takes the first amendment for granted. I'm just amazed that we had to go to these lengths. It's a little bit like living in the state of Mississippi."

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