AUBURN, Wash. — A federal judge has ordered the city of Auburn to allow an anti-war veterans group to march in Saturday's annual Veterans Day parade, ruling the city has violated one of the very rights it celebrates veterans for defending — the right to free speech.
U.S. District Chief Judge Marsha Pechman on Friday issued a temporary restraining order preventing the city from barring Veterans for Peace (VFP) from marching in the parade, purported to be the largest Veterans Day parade west of the Mississippi. In doing so, Pechman said the city was "wrong" in its efforts to craft rules to exclude the VFP from the celebration.
Pechman, who ruled from the bench after arguments, said it appeared "some vague group" within the city had decided that the VFP's anti-war message was "offensive." But protecting unpopular speech "is what the First Amendment is all about," she said.
The city's attorney, Daniel Heid, had argued that the city was thanking veterans for their contributions, and for "defending freedoms around the world." He contended that VFP's anti-war message, peace flags and reminders of the human and financial tolls of conflict were antithetical to that message.
Pechman, however, quickly pointed out that among those freedoms was the right to free speech.
She said rules promulgated by the city in the past year to try to refine that message so the city could control parade participants — particularly Veterans for Peace — were "very broad" and didn't accomplish what the city intended.
Pechman said it would be a stretch to somehow arrive at the conclusion that the VFP's message that "peace is a good thing" is somehow dishonoring veterans. She ordered the city to ensure that the group's placement in the parade is "in keeping" with its members' status as veterans.
Mayor Peter Lewis, a Vietnam veteran, wrote in a sworn declaration that he "knew the pain felt by military personnel returning home from Vietnam to see their efforts criticized," and said he suspects that at least some of the problems vets faced afterward were due to the "negative reception they received upon their return."
The city goal, he said, has been to make sure that never happens again, and "recognize the tremendous effort, courage and commitment demonstrated by those who have served. ... "
Lewis declined to comment after Pechman's decision. He said the parade would go on as planned Saturday.
VFP filed a lawsuit against parade organizers on Monday after the group was banned from the parade. The veterans group was joined in the lawsuit by American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, and sought the court order to force the city to allow the group to march in the parade.
Heid, the Auburn city attorney, said Monday that the city has had to review the applications of all parade participants in recent years because of its growing size and increased popularity. The VFP application did not make the cut, and the message was part of the consideration.
"This is an Auburn parade with a pro-military message," Heid said Monday. "The Veterans for Peace have a different message. ... We part company with them there."
It is not the first time Auburn has challenged the group's right to march.
In 2010, the city first rejected but later reconsidered the group's application after a VFP board member wrote that there was "nothing honorable" in the city's decision to exclude members of a national veterans group — regardless of its message — from marching alongside their fellows.
This past year, the city rewrote the parade's statement of purpose to further clarify its position.