July 26, 2006
Freedom on Parade
A real drama went down behind the scenes of this year's charming and historic Fourth of July parade in charming and historic Southampton.
Here, as is the case everywhere in our great country, debates are raging between those who support George W. Bush (and the disastrous policies of his administration) and those who pointedly do not. That kind of thing is widely known as "Freedom of Speech" and it's a coveted right guaranteed to our citizenry in the U.S. Constitution. Remember that old thing, drawn up by our Founding Fathers? We, meaning our courageous American ancestors who won our right to establish a democratic nation, fought a revolution against the top super-power of the 18th Century and King George III. It's all coming back to you now, isn't it?
Our side had some substantial gripes back then, like taxation without representation, the right to worship as you please, the right to congregate and to speak your mind freely. And, against all odds, we won! Who'd have thought that over two centuries later, in the town that's the oldest English settlement in New York, we'd come so close to losing our basic rights on the day set aside to celebrate our independence? It nearly happened, folks.
Here's what went down. Three very reputable groups from within our community wanted to march in the parade: The East End Veterans (who has more right to make their presence known than they?), The Unitarian Universalist Congregation (they're a religious group and they're not big on war — imagine that!), and The East End Bill of Rights Defense Committee (no explanation needed).
Apparently we have a group who call themselves The Village of Southampton Commission on Veterans Patriotic Events — who knew? That's quite a title — makes them sound very important. But did you or anyone you know vote for them and bestow any powers upon them? I thought not. My interpretation of what their function should be is that of party planners and nothing more. But they took it upon themselves to send out a letter in June to applicants stating, "political propaganda is prohibited". It gets worse: "We reserve the right to deny [an entry] the day of the parade if it does not meet with our criteria."
Suddenly the people who should be making sure all the flags are on the lamp posts, and arranging to have the paper cups and burst balloons swept up are deciding who has civil rights and who doesn't! A little power, like a little knowledge, is a dangerous thing. Seems they would control who marches and censor what opinions are voiced. That's not a good thing.
Hats off to the three groups mentioned above because upon the threat of exclusion, they didn't crawl off to the sidelines; they retained local attorney James Henry. He took their plight to the U.S. District Court in Islip and filed a lawsuit, arguing that a public event, such as our annual parade, cannot be restricted by an adhoc commission. Mr. Henry rose to the occasion and clearly stated, "It's a hunting license for people to discriminate against viewpoints [the commission] doesn't like!"
William Frankenbach (chairman of the commission) and Mayor Mark Epley are in the front lines, either by choice or because they were pushed. The lawsuit came before Judge Joanna Seybert who served the commissioners with papers and ordered they appear before her. Suddenly the Mayor's office sent the plaintiffs a letter saying they were granted permission to participate in the parade. How magnanimous these small town demigods become when faced with the average citizenry empowered by the law.
There's an important lesson in that: never forget to question authority. Cherish your rights and understand dissention is a patriotic act. Supposedly, Frankenbach refused any verbal acknowledgement of the "rebel" groups when they reached the reviewing stand even though, "They were very good. They were orderly."
Public servants should serve the public fairly and do their sulking at home. Maybe next year the East End Gay Organization will sponsor a float. That should spark a few fireworks!