Me on Local First Amendment Issue

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Me on Local First Amendment Issue

Post by Ralph » Fri Jun 02, 2006 7:49 pm

Stony Point Memorial Day parade leaves some constitutional issues

(Original Publication: June 2, 2006)

STONY POINT — For George Potanovic, passing out copies of the U.S. Constitution and carrying signs at Monday's Memorial Day parade seemed like a patriotic thing to do.

But town officials and veterans said Potanovic and his group, the Stony Point Action Committee for the Environment, were inappropriately politicizing an event that was meant to honor the sacrifices of the town's service members.

SPACE members handed out about 150 copies of the Constitution at the town-sponsored parade while carrying signs with slogans such as "Freedom of Speech" and "Protect Our Constitution."

SPACE now is accused of being disruptive, said Potanovic, president of the 16-year-old organization that often chides elected officials on development and other issues.

"By passing out the Constitution, we're trying to bring some meaning to what the holiday is about," said Potanovic, who added that soldiers fought to protect freedoms granted in the Constitution.

Donald Branson, commander of the Charles R. Lewis Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8997, who was also parade commander, said members of his organization were disturbed by SPACE's presence.

"It was not a time for a political outcry," he said. "Memorial Day is to honor fallen veterans. It's not a time to hand out Constitutions."

Branson said post members were to discuss how to respond to the protest at last night's meeting. He did not elaborate on any possible action the group might take.

For the past three years, SPACE members have passed out free copies of the U.S. Constitution and American flags during the Memorial Day parade.

At the meetings organized by this year's parade committee, SPACE was told that its members should march without signs and not hand out Constitution booklets and flags, Potanovic and town officials said.

The committee later changed its policy and told SPACE that American flags could be distributed, but not Constitution booklets.

Town Board member Geoffrey Finn, a parade committee member representing the Town Board, said he was disappointed by SPACE members carrying signs.

"Many veterans were upset, and many residents were upset," Finn said. "SPACE is such a good organization. It's very upsetting that they cannot follow the rules."

Town Supervisor Phil Marino said he was angered by SPACE's political signs, but he didn't think distributing copies of the Constitution was problematic.

Asked which signs were political, Marino said the "Freedom from Domestic Spying" sign particularly upset him.

"There's nothing about it in the Constitution. This is extremely political," Marino said. "You have to be a fool to know that's not a political sign."

Potanovic said the sign was in relation to the Fourth Amendment, which deals with freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Ralph Stein, constitutional law professor at Pace University, said the only thing parade organizers could do to those who don't follow the rules would be to ban them from participating in the parade next year, although the decision could be tricky if the parade was organized by a municipal government.

"If the government supports suppressing any one viewpoint over another, that would violate the First Amendment right to the people marching in the parade," Stein said. "If they are going to rule how to march in the parade, it had to be very narrowly tailored."

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