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 enough to fight amongst each other about. We don’t need to ruin Christmas over it.”
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.
Some spectators later complained about profane political flags and light displays via social media and calls and emails to City Hall. Cocoa Beach Rotary Club President Marcin Kubiak addressed the issue in an open letter last week, saying the group is apolitical and would be working to make sure it didn’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.
The controversy came not long after an annual boat parade in Yorktown, Virginia, drew similar complaints after a boat with an anti-Biden phrase won the “Best in Show” award, which was later revoked.
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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.
The city of Cocoa Beach does not sponsor the Rotary Club boat parade, though the city police boat leads the procession.
“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.
“Up to this year the big issue was throwing candy off the boats. Now the political division of our nation’s people has caused this event to become a focal point of division, which is very sad!” Alexander said 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 issue in this case is whether Massachusetts may require private citizens who organize a parade to include among the marchers a group imparting a message the organizers do not wish to convey. We hold that such a mandate violates the First Amendment,” the Supreme Court said in its opinion.
“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’s a private civic organization that’s doing a parade, they can certainly have rules and regulations in place that would prohibit any type of offensive or political messaging restrictions that they want,” he said.
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 said the Cocoa Beach Rotary Club board of directors will meet after the new year to discuss boat-parade policies.
“The problem is, whenever the parade starts anyone can join. 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 questioned whether we can regulate and enforce ways to keep this type of thing from reoccurring 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 is the South Brevard Watchdog Reporter at FLORIDA TODAY, part of the USA TODAY Network.Twitter: @RickNeale1
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