Judge Questions Firing of Blackface Firefighters, Cop in 1998 NYC Parade

A federal judge cast doubt on the city's quick firing in 1998 of two firefighters who wore blackface on a Labor Day parade float.


NEW YORK (AP) -- A federal judge cast doubt on the city's quick firing in 1998 of two firefighters and a police officer who wore blackface on a Labor Day parade float.

The men said in a civil rights lawsuit that the float, titled ``Black to the Future: 2098,'' was a parody designed to entertain and should be protected by the First Amendment. They want their jobs back.

Then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared that the men would be fired soon after the parade in a Queens neighborhood. He testified he was worried the men's racial insensitivity would lead to riots.

But U.S. District Judge John E. Sprizzo cautioned a city lawyer Thursday that the mayor needed actual evidence the racism would cause disruption _ not just a belief.

``You've got to be very careful in First Amendment cases to maintain the barriers, because it's so easy to slip into a kind of political correctness that sooner or later will be the end of the First Amendment,'' the judge said.

Sprizzo presided over the trial without a jury. Closing arguments concluded Thursday, and the judge said he would likely issue a written ruling in 60 to 90 days.

City lawyer Jonathan Pines testified the men _ firefighters Jonathan Walters and Robert Steiner and police officer Joseph Locurto _ threw fried chicken and watermelon at paradegoers.

The city also said the float made it appear as if one of the men in blackface was being dragged _ shortly after James Byrd Jr., a black man, was dragged to his death in Jasper, Texas.

``This is not simply using a racial epithet,'' Pines said. ``This is holding up for public ridicule the torture of an African-American man which was fresh on everybody's minds.''

In testimony in January, Giuliani said he was only making a prediction when he said the men would be fired. Only the police and fire commissioners at the time had the authority to fire the men, who were dismissed the month after the parade.

On Thursday, when Sprizzo pointed out there had been little public outrage over the float, Pines suggested that may have been because Giuliani quickly announced the men would be sacked.

``You think the minority community is more concerned about cops getting on a float and throwing watermelon than people being shot in a hallway 42 times?'' Sprizzo said. He referred to the shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant who was killed by officers who later claimed they mistook his wallet for a weapon.