Members of the Mobile City Council condemned a Mobile Mardi Gras association Tuesday for displaying signs found offensive by many on their floats in a Fat Tuesday parade. However, the council ultimately took no action on advice from legal counsel.
While councilors and Mayor Sandy Stimpson said they found the Comic Cowboys’ signs offensive, council attorney Jim Rossler said the First Amendment prevents the city from taking any legal action against the organization based on the content of the signs.
Rossler said the U.S. Supreme Court has a litany of examples where it defended the free speech of organizations, either parading or protesting, with statements the public would find offensive or that would “cause a hostile reaction.”
As an example, Rossler mentioned a case from 1977, where the court upheld the right of a neo-Nazi group to hold up signs advocating for genocide in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood.
Rossler said the court has consistently found that any government — federal, state or local — cannot regulate the content of speech similar to that of the Comic Cowboys.
Stimpson, who had been a member of the Comic Cowboys for four years until he resigned after seeing the signs in this year’s parade, said he found them offensive.
“I felt the same way as many of the residents,” he said after Tuesday’s meeting. “I resigned because I felt the signs crossed the line.”
He said he had seen some of the signs prior to the parade at a float party for the group, but didn’t know which ones were going to run until the day of the parade. Even though Stimpson had been a member in previous years, he said the signs “impacted me in a different way” this year.
Stimpson told members of the media that he has asked the Comic Cowboys to apologize. “I think you might see an apology from them,” he added.
Councilman Fred Richardson said he was “dismayed” by the signs and wrote a letter to the organization asking members to stop using references to gun violence and victims in their jokes. He also asked the group to refrain from “belittling women” in the future.
In an interview prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Richardson said the Comic Cowboys are offensive. “That’s what they do,” he said. Richardson added, however, that they broke with protocol by attacking former Mayor Sam Jones with a picture of a red hat with the words “Make Mobile Broke Again” written on the front. In the past, Richardson said the group typically lampoons current councilors and mayors.
While a few signs referenced mistakes made by former Chief of Staff Colby Cooper, Richardson said there were no signs making fun of just Stimpson.
“They’re very conscious of who they put on those posters,” Richardson said.
Councilman C.J. Small, whose shooting while in South Africa was the subject of a Comic Cowboys jab at violence in the city, condemned the group. In reference to the sign referencing the shooting he said could have killed him, Small was most offended by the implication that the city was not safe. He also criticized members of the organization for concealing their identities in public.
“If you stand by what you said, come out from behind the curtain,” he said. “This is not a white, or black, male or female issue; it’s a Mobile issue.”
Councilman John Williams stressed the importance of preserving the group’s First Amendment rights, but added that many on the council agree with residents on the nature of the signs.
Williams reminded those who were offended that they control where they shop and what they see.
Councilman Levon Manzie said he agreed that the signs in this year’s parade were offensive, noting that he has been the subject of the group’s barbs in the past.
“In the past I was called one of the Prancing Elites,” he said. “I do not prance and I am not an elitist.”
Along the lines of comments by Richardson, Williams and others, Manzie encouraged those offended by the signs to start their own organization and put up their own signs.
Seal Street resident Timothy Hollis said many tourists he spoke with through his job at a downtown pedicab company found the signs offensive.
“Many visitors said they’d go to New Orleans because we parade racism down our streets,” he told councilors.
Hollis said he understands the country has freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but he questioned whether the city has the authority to issue the Comic Cowboys a parade permit next year. As an example, he said if a disc jockey had played an offensive song while on a parade float, the city would stop that group from parading.
He also called for the possible creation of an advisory board to oversee parading organizations.
Mari Ponder, president of the South Alabama League of Student Voters, called the signs “racist and embarrassing to Mobile.”
“I’m asking the City Council and mayor to go on record and say the signs do not represent the views of the city government,” she said. “Maybe there’s more you can do, maybe not. At least say the city doesn’t approve of racist signs.”
In other business, councilors delayed a vote to ratify a purchase order of $107,844 for new seats at Hank Aaron Stadium. The vote ratified the purchase because the administration made the purchase without council consent, something that is typically done on a purchase order.
Members of the council’s finance committee have asked to work more closely with the administration in the future on purchase order items that are not routine.
Updated to correct an error on the action related to the ratification of the Hank Aaron Stadium purchase order. The council delayed the vote during the March 7 meeting. The board voted 6-1 to ratify the purchase order during the Thursday, March 16 meeting.