Veterans Censored at Military Parade

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Veterans Speakers AllianceVeterans Speakers AllianceIn May 1991 – during the first Gulf War – the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce and the military jointly sponsored the Armed Forces Day Parade in San Francisco to welcome home troops that were serving in Operation Desert Storm. They put out a call to veterans groups throughout northern California to participate in the parade, which was to take place both inside the Presidio Army Base and in the surrounding Marina neighborhood of San Francisco.

On of the groups that accepted the invitation was the Veterans Speakers Alliance, an organization of vets from World War II and the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf.

The 15-member Alliance contingent marched in its assigned place, third from the last, behind marching bands, ROTC groups and military units. In their backpacks, they carried folded signs and rolled-up banners. As they approached the reviewing stand just inside the Presidio, where Governor Pete Wilson, San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos and other government and military dignitaries were seated, they unfurled the banners and placards. Their messages read "Veterans Say No War," "No Blood for Oil," and "Study War No More."

Police Object to Veterans' Message

Military Police immediately assaulted them. When the MPs attempted to confiscate the banners and placards, the veterans – asserting their First Amendment rights – refused to give them up. The MPs threw the vets against a hurricane fence, surrounded, handcuffed, searched and detained them. They were escorted under armed guard to the office of the Provost Marshall, who threatened to charge them with "trespassing." He eventually realized the charge was not valid, since the military had invited the group to participate in the event. After several hours, the veterans were released, but with orders barring them from reentering the Presidio and other Bay Area military installations.

Paul Cox, a Vietnam veteran and an organizer of the protest, said, "The parade was a lie, and we felt as veterans we had to say so. They honor the war but war is not honorable – how dare we celebrate death and destruction. If ever there was a time to be beating our swords into plowshares, this is it."

The veterans turned to the ACLU of Northern California, and attorney Alan Schlosser filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on their behalf, charging that censorship based on political viewpoint is plainly prohibited by the First Amendment. The military had invited a broad range of groups to participate in the parade, and had therefore opened up the space. Even military police are bound by this basic principle of the Bill of Rights, the suit claimed.

It took a year, but the military settled the suit, lifting the ban order and paying almost $80,000 in damages.

An Honorable Tradition

The anti-war veterans were following a long and honorable American tradition: dissent from official government policy. The MPs who attacked and arrested them and those who gave them the order to do so, were also following a time-honored American tradition: the silencing of dissent during times of war. Perhaps without knowing it, the vets who had fought for freedom in Korea, Southeast Asia and the Middle East were following in the footsteps of others who took unpopular positions during times of war and crisis.

Their right to speak out, even on a military base, was protected.

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