2003-06-27 / Front Page

‘Can’t Prohibit Speech’

Broad Channel Men Exonerated In
By Tommy Hallissey
‘Can’t Prohibit Speech’

'Can't Prohibit Speech'
Broad Channel Men Exonerated In 'Racist' Parade

Freedom of speech was violated by the city in the case of three Broad Channel men, two firefighters and one policeman, who were fired after riding on a parade float in blackface during a 1998 Broad Channel Mardi Gras Labor Day parade. That decision was handed down on Tuesday by the U.S District Court in Manhattan.

Firefighters Robert Steiner and Jonathan Walters and policeman Joseph Locurto rode aboard a float entitled "Black to the Future: Broad Channel, 2098" in the Labor Day 1998 parade.

The three men, among others, painted their faces black and threw watermelons and fried chicken into the crowd. They went as far as to stage a re-enactment of the murder of James Byrd Jr. - a black man from Texas, who was dragged from a pickup truck and killed in 1998.

In previous years, many of the same group that rode on "Black to the Future" sponsored floats entitled, "The Gooks of Hazzard" and "Hasidic Park". Neither float received the notoriety or degree of public criticism that the accompanied the 1998 float.

At the time, snippets of videotape of the "Black to the Future" float were spread across the local news; Al Sharpton led a march of 100 demonstrators through Broad Channel; and, Mayor Giuliani publicly denounced the actions of the two firefighters and the policeman. Giuliani then fired the three off-duty city employees without hearings, citing concerns that their actions could result in civil unrest across the city. Shortly afterwards, Locurto, Steiner and Walters filed suit against the city claiming that they were wrongfully fired and their first amendment rights were violated.

The plaintiffs continue to allege that they were scapegoats for the Mayor at a racially tense time for the city. "The decision confirms that the reason for dismissing the three individuals was to distract from the mayor's policy," said Donna Leiberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU.

Not all shared the enthusiasm of the NYCLU for the decision. "Folks of color are tremendously outraged," said Ed Willams, President Far Rockaway chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and an assistant for Congressman Gregory Meeks. "Their conduct and behavior is indefensible."

Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who originally said the only way for Locurto to get his job back would be if the Supreme Court reinstated him, disagreed with the ruling. "I think that the decision is bizarre," Giuliani, defendant in the case, told The New York Times. "The city and the mayor have to have the discretion to remove people in uniform who display significant racial bias."

The decision handed down by U.S. District Judge John E. Sprizzo has far reaching implications beyond the three plaintiffs. The New York Civil Liberties Union, who defended Locurto, lauded the ruling as a victory for freedom of speech. "Expression is protected regardless of the content so long as it doesn't disrupt their particular employment practices," said Donna Leiberman.

While freedom of expression is protected under the first amendment, does that right extend to protect racism? "Is it all right for a black man to call an Italian a grease ball?," asked Williams rhetorically.

The "Black to the Future: Broad Channel 2098" float was reportedly intended to be a parody of racial bias.

It is still alleged that Locurto, Steiner and Walters were fired, in part, to atone for past racial insensitivities of the Guiliani administration. The three Broad Channel men were fired "to distract from the mayor's own abysmal track record," said Leiberman. While Guiliani asserts that it would be dangerous to have racists patrolling the streets.

The ruling marks the first step - liability - in a bifurcated process of exoneration the judge has established for this case. Now that the court has decided that the men were erroneously fired, the next step is punitive damages and possible reinstatement of their city jobs. Locurto is only seeking the reinstatement of his job, according to the NYCLU.

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