2006-05-05 / Community

Court: Rudy Right To Fire Cop, Two Firefighters Who Wore Blackface in 1998 BC Parade

By Howard Schwach

A federal appeals court has ruled that former mayor Rudy Giuliani was within his rights when he summarily fired a cop and two firefighters who rode in blackface on a float entitled "Black To The Future: Broad Channel 2098" in the Broad Channel Labor Day Parade in 1998.

A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit ruled last week to reverse an earlier District Court ruling by finding that it was constitutionally permissible for the city to fire the three men, identified in court papers as Police Officer Joseph LoCurto and Firefighters Jonathan Walters and Robert Steiner, all of Broad Channel.

In overturning the District Court ruling, the three judges said that the city had "an altogether reasonable concern for disruption" arising out of the behavior of the three city workers and that the city's "interest in maintaining a relationship of trust between the fire and police departments and the communities they serve outweigh plaintiff's interests in expressing themselves in this case."

"The First Amendment does not require a government employer to sit idly by while its employees insult those they are hired to serve and protect," the unanimous decision said.

The three men commenced the lawsuit in 1998, after they were brought up on disciplinary charges for riding on what many at the time called a "racist float" in the parade. All three of the men were in blackface, two of them eating watermelon and pretending to break-dance while Walters dragged himself behind the float, allegedly mimicking the then-recent torture and murder of a black man in Texas.

The incident was widely reported in the press and on television nationwide and drew lots of publicity.

Mayor Giuliani spoke to the press prior to the disciplinary hearings for the three men, calling the float "a disgusting display of racism," and vowing to fire any city worker who was found to be on the float. LoCurto, Steiner and Walters were fired after a quick series of department hearings.

In 2004, Manhattan Federal Judge John Spizzo ruled that the terminations violated the men's right to free speech and ordered the city to pay nearly $300,000 in combined lost wages to the three.

The Second Circuit decision, however, overturns that ruling.

Elizabeth Freedman, the assistant corporation counsel who handled the case on appeal for New York City, was pleased with the court's decision.

"We are extremely gratified with the unanimous endorsement of the action of the defendants in this case," Freedman said in a prepared statement. "The decision properly balances the competing interests of public employees and public employers. In this case, the Second Circuit properly balanced those interests." Robert Didio, the attorney for Robert Steiner, however, finds the decision to overturn the decision on a matter of fact without going back to the trial judge "unusual." "We are of course disappointed with the Circuit Court's decision," he told The Wave. "We are currently evaluating our options in carrying this case forward."

Among those options, Didio said, was appealing the case to the United States Supreme Court and another would be to reargue the case before the Second Circuit on more time.

Will Steiner and the others drop the case now that they have lost at the appellate level? "We have been fighting this case for eight years," Didio said. "We're going to continue to fight until there is no place left to go." Neither American Civil Liberties Union attorney Christopher Dunn, who represents Joseph LoCurto nor Michael Block, who represents Jonathan Walters was available for comment at press time.

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