Judge rules protesters to be allowed at air show

Tuesday, April 4, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:16 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Demonstrators will be free to hand out leaflets and carry protest signs at the annual Memorial Day air show following a federal court ruling that solidifies a temporary decision covering last year’s event.

Judge Nanette Laughrey ruled Friday that activists also have a constitutional right to wear clothing, hats and buttons expressing viewpoints not shared by the event’s organizers.

Collecting signatures on petitions, however, is off-limits because it involves communication between petitioners and the public, Laughrey wrote in her decision.

Laughrey’s ruling is similar to a preliminary injunction she issued last year. That decision applied only to the 2005 Salute to Veterans Airshow.

Bill Wickersham, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said he wasn’t surprised by Friday’s ruling.

“We didn’t get everything we wanted, but we’re pleased with the decision,” Wickersham said. “It’s a victory for First Amendment rights.”

Memorial Day Weekend Salute to Veterans Corp., the not-for-profit group that organizes the event, filed an appeal to the ruling Monday. Mayor Darwin Hindman said he didn’t know whether the City of Columbia, the other defendant in the case, would join the appeal.

“That’s a decision that would be up to the council,” Hindman said.

Dale Doerhoff, an attorney for Salute to Veterans Corp., said his clients believe they have a First Amendment right to hold the event without having to include political or other messages.

“Whether it’s something they agree with, disagree with or are neutral about is irrelevant,” he said. “They want to continue to have a Memorial Day observance that will honor and remember veterans.”

The most recent ruling comes after two years of debate centered around the question of whether the air show, which takes place at the city-owned Columbia Regional Airport, is a public or private event.

Wickersham and co-plaintiff Maureen Doyle were escorted off the tarmac during the 2004 show for collecting signatures on a green energy petition and handing out anti-war leaflets.

The American Civil Liberties Union then sued the city and air show organizers on behalf of Wickersham and Doyle, arguing that political activists have a right to free speech at the event, which is free and open to the public.

Salute to Veterans Corp. argued that the air show is a private event, so organizers had a right to exclude outside points of view.

In her ruling Friday, Laughrey seemed to reject this argument, citing the involvement of the Columbia Police Department and other services at the local, state and federal level.

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