Marchers in today's Fourth of July parade in Southampton Village will be able to carry signs reading "Support Our Troops ... Bring Them Home Now," according to a compromise hammered out yesterday among the village, the marchers and a federal judge.
After complaints from parade watchers about those signs last year, the village's parade committee ruled that no "political propaganda" or advertising could be carried by marchers, and that signs should only reflect the themes of the parade - "Let Freedom Ring" and "Support Our Troops."
Village Mayor Mark Epley said last night that the village never intended to muzzle free speech, and that the marchers who took Southampton to court were never expressly told they could not march.
Still, the Unitarian Universalist church group that wants to carry the signs said they never got permission to march. The federal court ruling yesterday allows them to march and carry signs, but did not resolve the broader question of what happens next year.
James S. Henry, attorney for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bridgehampton, the marchers, responded to the decision saying, "Can you imagine a court order that tells people they have the right to engage in free speech on the Fourth of July, and signed by a federal judge?"
The parade is to start down Main Street at 10 a.m today.
For the past three years, the church group and other marchers carried banners urging support for the First Amendment and for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.
But this year, the village's parade commission said it would ban any "political propaganda," without defining what constituted such propaganda. In a letter sent to the groups, the commission reserved the right to prohibit participants from marching in the parade, whether they had been approved or not, if the banners and signs they carried were ruled to be "inappropriate."
The church group and two other groups that carried anti-war signs last year - the East End Veterans and the Bill of Rights Defense Committee - all applied for parade permits early last month, but never got them. So, Henry went to the U.S. District Court in Central Islip late Friday, charging the village policy violated the group's constitutional rights to free speech and freedom of assembly.
While the federal court was closed yesterday, Judge Joanna Seybert resolved the issue through a conference call, saying the three groups shall be permitted "to march and freely engage in political speech at the July 4 parade."
Epley said that, after last year's parade, he got "a lot of calls and letters" saying that was inappropriate. "Some people said the Fourth of July parade was not the place for that," he said. "Others believe its a perfect place to express your view of America."
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