COCOA BEACH, Fla. — A handful of watercraft displayed vulgar messages criticizing President Joe Biden during the holiday-themed Cocoa Beach Boat Parade, sparking complaints from spectators.
Meanwhile, the Cocoa Beach Rotary Club, which organizes the annual event, has pledged to try to prevent similar situations from happening again.
“Political messaging has no place in a Christmas parade,” Cocoa Beach Mayor Ben Malik said. We have plenty to fight over. “We don’t need Christmas to end in disgrace.”
A tradition since the 1970s, the Cocoa Beach Boat Parade features a procession of illuminated boats. The festive flotilla started Dec. 11 near Centennial Park and headed southward along residential canal-front neighborhoods, ending near Cocoa Beach Country Club.
Later, some spectators complained about the profane use of political symbols and lights via social media as well as calls to City Hall and emails. The Cocoa Beach Rotary Club president Marcin Kubicak wrote an open letter to address the problem last week. Kubiak stated that his club was apolitical, and would take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
“It is our understanding that this year a handful of boats — whose captains to the best of our knowledge did not participate in the captains’ meeting held in early December — joined the parade displaying political messages including profanities,” Kubiak’s letter said.
“We are deeply saddened, disappointed and disgusted this took place,” the letter said.
After an anti-Biden boat parade in Yorktown (Virginia), sparked similar protests, the boat that carried the phrase was awarded “Best in Show”, which was later removed.
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Cocoa Beach City Hall officials posted the Rotary letter on the city Facebook page on Dec. 15, generating hundreds of comments — and arguments over national politics, freedom of speech and common decency.
Cocoa Beach is not a sponsor of the Rotary Club Boat Parade, but the City Police boat takes part in the parade.
“I feel this was a planned move by a small group of boat owners, to get attention, and they did,” said John Alexander, boat parade chairman, in an email last week to the Cocoa Beach City Commission.
“This year, candy was the biggest issue. The political divisions of our nation have made this an issue. This is very unfortunate! Alexander wrote in the email.
Addressing the controversy, City Attorney Becky Vose sent Malik an analysis of a landmark 1995 Supreme Court decision regarding restriction of parade messaging, in which the judges unanimously ruled that organizers of the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade had the right to reject the Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston from participating.
“The question in this case concerns whether Massachusetts could require private citizens to organize a parade that includes a group carrying a message that organizers are not keen to transmit. The Supreme Court ruled that such a mandate is against the First Amendment.
“If somebody wants to fly their boat flag down the canal with whatever they want on the back of it, have at it,” Malik said.
But if it is a private civil organization, that is doing a parade then they could certainly have rules that would prohibit offensive or political message restrictions,” he stated.
In 2015, hundreds of people attended a Melbourne City Council debate after Confederate flags were displayed during that Florida city’s annual Fourth of July parade. Confederate Sons Association of Florida Indian River Camp 47 and Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp J.J. Dickison Camp 1387 drew criticism from some — and applause from others — by flying the flags during Melbourne’s parade, which the city co-sponsored by providing in-kind police and traffic engineering services.
The Melbourne City Council voted in 2017 to stop using taxpayer dollars to fund parades. The Melbourne Light Parade — which is organized by a small nonprofit — has had funding challenges ever since, and council members may revisit the issue early next year.
Alexander stated that the Cocoa Beach Rotary Club Board of Directors will meet in the New Year to review boat-parade policy.
Everyone can attend the parade, but that’s not the problem. It’s very unfortunate because so many kids are there watching,” Alexander said.
“I’ve been organizing this boat parade for about the past 10 years now — and we have never, ever had any situation like this occur,” he said.
Cocoa Beach Vice-Mayor Skip Williams said it was not yet clear if those boaters were repeat participants, if they registered for the parade, if they attended the pre-event captains’ meeting — or if they just showed up and cut into the parade.
I have already asked whether it is possible to regulate and enforce measures that would prevent this from happening again in Cocoa Beach. God forbid the issue gets tied up in a 1st Amendment legal battle and we have to cancel the parade to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Williams said in the emails.
Rick Neale, the South Brevard Watchdog reporter at FLORIDA TODAY is part of USA TODAY Network.Twitter: @RickNeale1