Two years after the start of a legal battle pitting Southampton Village and anti-war protesters over their right to march and carry political signs in the village’s annual Independence Day parade, the issue is close to being resolved.
On March 25, Southampton Mayor Mark Epley appeared at U.S. District Court in Central Islip with Village Attorney Richard DePetris.
Mayor Epley said the village has agreed to codify the application process introduced last year for marching in the parade. That process includes placing a newspaper ad detailing how a group can apply and how it can appeal to the Village Board if denied permission to march. As part of the agreement, the village will also donate $10,000 from its general fund to the Peconic Land Trust to appease the coalition of protesters who took Southampton Village to court.
The case started just before the 2006 Independence Day parade, when parade organizers sent out letters prohibiting “political propaganda” and stating that they reserved the right to deny entry to any group that did not meet their criteria. In response, groups that wanted to peacefully protest the war in Iraq—as they had done the year before—filed suit in federal court. A judge ordered parade organizers to allow the anti-war protesters to participate and “engage in political speech.”
The case continued as the anti-war groups sought a permanent solution and reimbursement for their legal costs.
The protesters had been asking for $59,000 in attorneys’ fees, Mayor Epley said, but dropped the demand in exchange for the village’s donation to the Peconic Land Trust. “I didn’t want to give them one dime,” he said, “but it was a compromise.” He added that the donation would be less expensive than continuing to fight the matter.
The attorney for the protesters, James Henry of Sag Harbor, who was a Democratic candidate for Southampton Town supervisor last year, said that although the agreement is not yet final, he expects the situation to be resolved amicably.
The marching application process will be more transparent and less arbitrary, said Mr. Henry, who represents East End Veterans Against the War, The East End Bill of Rights Defense Committee and members of The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork.
Under the system, the Village Board could still deny groups the right to march. “I didn’t want to restrain future boards from having the ability to make the decision of who marches in the parade,” Mayor Epley said. The mayor acknowledged that there could be future litigation. “Let’s hope that we don’t get to that point,” he said. “I’d hate to go through this again with anyone.”
The effort to keep some groups from marching had nothing to do with an anti-war message, according to Mr. Epley, but instead involved the question of whether the parade is “an appropriate venue for their message.”