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N.Y. Violated Rights of Trio, Judge Rules

Two firefighters and a police officer were fired for wearing blackface during a parade.

June 25, 2003|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the city violated the free speech rights of two firemen and a policeman when city officials, at the direction of then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, fired the workers in 1998 for riding in blackface on a parade float.

"The government is not permitted to chill the 1st Amendment rights of its employees," U.S. District Judge John E. Sprizzo said in an opinion that followed a trial in January during which Giuliani testified. " ... The government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because a segment of society finds it offensive."

Officials said Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's administration would appeal the decision.

In his ruling, the judge cited Giuliani's statements to reporters at the time and rejected the mayor's contention that the firings were designed to avert possible civil unrest.

Sprizzo labeled as Giuliani's "true motivation" his belief the float showed "a disgusting display of racism."

"They're technically suspended, but they're never going back into the Police Department or the Fire Department unless the Supreme Court of the United States ordered us to take them back," the judge quoted Giuliani as saying.

Giuliani's spokeswoman, Sunny Mindel, said the former mayor believed the judge's decision was "bizarre."

"He maintains that the city and the mayor need discretion to remove those people in uniform who show signs of racial bias," Mindel said. " ... There would be an issue in the future of liability if they were to get involved in an incident and a background check revealed an incident such as this which screams of racial bias."

The workers were off duty when they put on blackface, Afro wigs and rode the float called "Black to the Future" during the annual Labor Day parade in the Broad Channel neighborhood of Queens.

At times, they chanted "No justice, no peace," a slogan sometimes heard at civil rights rallies. Near the end of the parade, one of the firefighters briefly reenacted the death of a black man in Texas who was killed after being dragged behind a truck by three white men.

Sprizzo said at the alleged urging of the cheering crowd and cameramen, the fireman repeated the depiction.

The judge pointed out that floats in the annual parade typically parodied a television show or movie and sometimes depicted "the negative stereotypes of a particular racial, ethnic or religious group."

Before the parade, another float titled "Gottizilla," with the theme of Italian American stereotypes, including mob boss John Gotti, was considered, the judge said.

Former firefighters Jonathan Walters and Robert Steiner, and Joseph Locurto, the ex-police officer, apologized for the incident, and are suing the city to get their jobs back.

In a 53-page decision, the judge ruled the men were fired "in response to the content of their speech and for reasons of public perception" and the political impact expected to follow.

Sprizzo said the men were dismissed without consideration of their performance records or involvement with the communities where they were assigned.

He said their participation in the parade was entitled to 1st Amendment protection and the concern about potential disruption was "unreasonable" and "insufficient" to outweigh the constitutionally protected rights of free speech.

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