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Updated Tuesday, November 6, 2012 at 05:14 PM

ACLU joins vets in Auburn parade suit

By Mike Carter
Seattle Times staff reporter

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington on Monday joined a Seattle anti-war veterans group in suing the city of Auburn for excluding the group from its annual Veterans Day parade Saturday, and is asking a federal judge to force the city to allow the group to march.

The lawsuit says the Seattle chapter of the internationally recognized nonprofit group, Veterans for Peace (VFP), has marched in the parade for the past six years, but was excluded this year. According to the lawsuit, the group was told the parade was becoming too large and the group's message ran contrary to the parade's purpose to "positively honor" veterans.

The lawsuit alleges that the city, in letters and statements, questioned whether VFP's stated message to "promote peaceful solutions to armed conflicts" fit into the parade's message, and as a result, whether there was room for the group to march in the parade. The city, instead, offered to allow VFP to set up a booth.

VFP Chapter No. 92, in Seattle, has 96 members, about two-thirds of them former military members, according to the ACLU. Nationally, the group claims about 3,900 members.

Auburn has been designated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as a regional site for the 2012 Veterans Day celebration. The city boasts it sponsors one of the largest Veterans Day celebrations in the country, with thousands of spectators and nearly 200 entrants this year, according to the lawsuit and the city's website.

City Attorney Dan Heid 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 2009, 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.

Heid, however, said that since then the city has had increasing concerns about Veterans for Peace. Heid pointed out that in past parades some of the members "have carried peace flags."

"We have a banner across Main Street that says, 'To Veterans: Thank You for Your Time, Commitment and Courage,' " Heid said. "This is the city's parade. They can have their own if they want. They just have to apply."

David Whedbee, a Seattle civil-rights attorney who is working with the ACLU in representing Veterans for Peace, said that Auburn's rules for the parade are unconstitutional and that the city can't regulate speech at a public parade.

He pointed out that groups ranging from the Veterans of Foreign Wars to the Corvette Club had applied and received permission to be in this year's parade.

"The City of Auburn opens its streets every year and invites parade participants and spectators to pay tribute to men and women who have served this country's military," Whedbee wrote in a motion seeking a court injunction forcing Auburn to allow VFP into the parade.

By doing so, Whedbee argued, the city has established a protected forum for free speech and is violating it by discriminating against VFP "apparently because of their message for peace."

"You cannot discriminate based on viewpoint," he said Monday.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge James Robart. The ACLU is asking for an emergency hearing on its motion for an injunction to prevent the city from excluding the VFP from Saturday's parade.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com


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