Nearly two dozen anti-war and free speech activists implored the Mill Valley City Council last week to take ownership of the annual , saying that the event’s organizers are preventing them from participating this year.
At issue is an ongoing conflict between the Marin Peace and Justice Coalition (MPJC) and the I Love a Parade Committee that has been putting on the popular Memorial Day event since 1992. Mill Valley resident and MPJC member Alan Barnett has led the group’s participation in several previous parades, often drawing the ire of parade organizers for banners that alleged war crimes by the United States or Israel.
“Alan Barnett manipulates the system for his own agenda without any regard for the city of Mill Valley and the residents of Mill Valley that he might offend,” said Larry “the Hat” Lautzker, the president of the parade committee, saying that the coalition has broken several agreements with parade organizers over the years to keep their message focused on peace and not war or alleged war crimes.
“He’s been given every opportunity to follow the parade rules and not use the parade as a soapbox for his own agenda,” Lautzker continued. “That’s why we’re keeping them out of the event.”
The parade committee has a landmark 1995 U.S. Supreme Court decision on its side.
In Hurley v. Irish American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston, the court ruled that private citizens organizing a public demonstration may not be compelled by the government to include groups who impart a message that the organizers do not want to be included in their demonstration.”
Barnett, a 48-year resident of Mill Valley, said his group was well aware of the court ruling and had sought the advise of the Marin chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which determined that the only way around the court ruling is for the city to sponsor the event and issue permits to all groups that want to participate in the parade.
“The city government has granted a permit to the I Love a Parade Committee knowing that it insists on censoring the organizations that it allows in the parade,” Barnett said. “Instead, the city could declare that the parade is an official city event and could grant permits to any groups that want to participate.”
Former Mill Valley Mayor Bob Burton said that while he often disagreed with Barnett, his group had a right to participate in the parade, as does any group wishing to exercise its right to free speech.
“Maybe somebody would like to go in the parade and carry a Nazi flag,” Burton said. “That would be very repulsive to me, but I respect their right to do so.”
Part of the free speech debate is a result of the parade being on Memorial Day, which commemorates U.S. soldiers who died while in military service. Local resident Lorraine Norby said those rights included free speech.
“So how could this happen?” she asked.
But Lautzker said that the Mill Valley parade was never intended to be a traditional Memorial Day event like those in the Presidio in San Francisco or at the Marin Civic Center in San Rafael.
“It’s a celebration of all that is Mill Valley,” Lautzker said. “It’s not to say that we don’t honor the men and women who died for our country, but we also honor the people who lived and died in our community, hence the theme of this year’s parade .”
City Councilwoman Shawn Marshall said the city has encouraged the parade committee to incorporate some traditional Memorial Day elements but can’t require it because it is not a city event.
At the council’s meeting last Tuesday, City Attorney Greg Stepanicich said the Hurley decision does indeed allow a private group to have a parade and decide who gets in and who doesn’t, regardless of the event's connection to Memorial Day.
He also noted that because a permit has already been issued to the I Love a Parade Committee for the 2011 Memorial Day Parade, this year's parade must go on irrespective of the current debate.
Stepanicich noted that any group could apply for a permit for the same day as the Memorial Day Parade and decide, for instance, to march at the end of the parade separately.
Marshall said that tack was the coalition’s best move.
“I know that is not the solution that the MPJC would like to see happen here, but it is a solution that allows then to do what they want to do,” she said.
Marshall said that while it might make sense for the city to evaluate the possibility of sponsoring the Memorial Day Parade in the future, doing so would raise a host of additional questions.
“That adds major potential resource impacts on the city at a time when all cities are buckling down and having to make serious priority calls about what we’re able and willing to spend our money on,” Marshall said.