Southampton Town Hall Ends Bias Free Zone, Tries “Be-Civil” Zone

If you go to the Southampton Town Hall today, you will notice there’s something missing. It’s a sign. Six years ago, members of the Southampton Town Board were photographed standing proudly in front of the columns and front steps of that grand building, directly behind a brand new white wooden sign on a post they had just ordered put up alongside the concrete front walkway. Now it’s gone. Here is what it said.

BIAS FREE ZONE

This Marker Represents the Community’s recognition of the Importance of Establishing an open-minded and respectful attitude among all the residents of Southampton Town. Dedicated on January 1, 2007 by the Southampton Anti-Bias Task Force.

People come to Town Hall for all sorts of reasons. They come to buy beach parking stickers, they come to attend town meetings. They come to get information about their taxes and they come to get building permits and they come to visit the town attorney or supervisor, or trustees or assessors or building inspectors. Also, at least until the department moved to a new building in Hampton Bays, they would come to Town Hall to go to court, to answer traffic violations or answer to crimes that they might or might not have committed. As many as a million people every year have passed that sign since it was put up. It’s a quiet reminder of the diversity of ethnic cultures that live in Southampton and how we must all get along, most particularly on this site.

On the afternoon of July 26, 2011, however, a not-so-quiet encounter occurred on the walkway leading up to Town Hall. That was the day that, for the first time, a same sex marriage was conducted in Town Hall. One hour before the wedding, demonstrators arrived carrying signs reading, “Marriage: One Man, One Woman.” Placing themselves at the foot of the steps, they began their protest, explaining to anyone who would listen that because the Bible refers to homosexuality as abomination, marriage should be reserved for all time as a bond between a man and a woman.

According to the protesters, they were treated inappropriately. Within minutes of their arrival, they later said, police officers came out and told them they were not allowed to protest where they were. They were told to move to a spot farther away from the front entrance, across from the driveway, which one of the officers told them was the “free speech zone.” A few of the protesters went up and into the building to ask a question, but were told they had to leave.

Another protester said he went up to the building to ask for a phone number and was told that he could not be inside “under threat of arrest.”

Eventually, they all did leave. But they were not done with this. Exactly one year later, on July 25, 2012, the demonstrators returned to protest again. This time they brought video cameras. But this time nobody came out to tell them to go to the “free speech zone.” So they finished their protest and they left.

But they were still not done with this. On December 11, the Town was hit with a lawsuit filed by the protesters. It was against Southampton Town and Southampton Village and their respective police departments, and it was filed by the Reverend Donald Havrilla of the Southampton Full Gospel Church, James Boyd IV, Richard Morabito, Patrick Impelli, Joseph Collins and Maria Favilla, all of whom claimed they were present at the time of the incident and they had encountered violations of their rights to freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, equal access, equal protection and the right to due process of law, which are required by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.

In the lawsuit, it was specifically noted that other groups had held rallies and protests on the sidewalk at the bottom of the steps of Town Hall adjacent to the anti-bias sign. These groups included the Town’s Policemen’s Benevolent Association and the Southampton Town Anti-Bias Task Force and that what they received on that day in July of 2011 was a different thing entirely.

The Town was required to respond to this lawsuit and they did. They denied the allegations. However, at that time, there would be no move to remove the anti-bias sign. Maybe somebody thought that removing it immediately after the filing of the lawsuit would be detrimental to their defense.

This past week, however, this lawsuit was settled between the parties.

The Town agreed to pay the group’s legal fees, an amount reported by Patch to be roughly $40,000. They also announced that they were going to remove the anti-bias sign, which they did last week, and then this week they voted to rescind the town law that created the anti-bias zone.

But that’s not the end of it, either.

Though there are many grand entrances to town halls in the Hamptons and everywhere else around the country that do not have signs announcing that certain behavior, particularly behavior involving prejudice, is not allowed in that location, it seems the Town Board of Southampton has decided that they LIKE having a sign out front.

At the present time, they are working on the wording for a new one. This will no longer be a “bias free zone.” That’s too controversial, perhaps. Instead, they are thinking in terms of one that would “encourage civility,” they have said.

Nobody could object to the town wanting everyone to “be civil” with one another, could they?

I mean, what’s the harm with that? Angry words not welcome. Keep it bottled up inside, and if you can’t do that, let it out, but not here, not on the front steps of the Southampton Town Hall.

Go across the street. There’s a rude-is-ok zone over there.

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