Political floats in the Ashland Fourth of July parade will no longer be held to a different standard after the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Oregon put pressure on the Chamber of Commerce.




Michael Simon, a Portland attorney with the ACLU Foundation that represents Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice, said in a letter to Ashland Mayor John Morrison and Jim Kidd, parade chair for the chamber, that the ACLU and SOJwJ believes that the fee structure is unconstitutional under the United States and Oregon constitutions.




"Because assessing a higher fee for political entries discriminates on the basis of the content of the entrant's message and thereby burden free speech, it violates both the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Free Expression Clause of the Oregon Constitution," Simon's letter stated.




Ashland resident Wes Brain, chair of the non-profit coalition, asked Simon to look into the constitutionality of the fee structure after the chamber declared last year that his float was political, and therefore subject to a higher fee.




Brain said SOJwJ had paid the $30 fee as a non-profit entrant in the past, but two days before last year's parade, he received a handwritten note from Kidd stating that non-profit floats were not allowed to display political or political party banners and would have to pay the $100 political entrant fee.




"We define (a political entrant) as any entry promoting or identifying with a political party," Kidd said, referring to banners displayed by the Green Party from the SOJwJ parade entry. The Green Party is one of the non-profit's coalition members.




Ashland attorney Allen Drescher, who represents the chamber, responded to Simon's letter by writing, "my client disagrees with your factual assertions and legal conclusions, but, solely for the purpose of compromise and settlement of your client's claim, and without admission of any facts, my client is refunding $70 as requested, and my client has agreed that in the future there will be one entry fee that will apply to all entries in the Fourth of July parade."




Drescher said in an e-mail that the parade committee will make a recommendation to the chamber board, which will then set the fee. He didn't say when the meeting would take place and Sandra Slattery, executive director of the chamber, did not return phone calls regarding comments on the changes.




Simon's letter also alleged that "the chamber's extensive entwinement with the city in planning and executing the parade renders its parade-related decisions 'fairly attributable' to the city, and thus 'state action.'"




Simon's letter cited the fact that the chamber receives money from the city's hotel/motel tax to help pay for parade expenses, which constituted a state action and is subject to constitutional limitations. The letter also listed the chamber's free use of Lithia Park, the city scheduling improvements to accommodate the parade and the chamber's joint venture with the city's conservation commission to "green up" the parade.




Drescher's response denied an "entwinement" between the city and the chamber.




He said the chamber has a contractual relationship with the city to provide certain services, but that none of those funds are used for the parade. Drescher also said city personnel are not involved in the planning, conduct or supervision of the parade.




He said the chamber hires a private security service for the parade and that "the city has made it clear that city police officers will not assist chamber security service personnel unless a crime is committed."




Drescher further wrote that the use of Lithia Park takes place after the parade has concluded and that the city allows other non-profit groups such as the Rogue Valley Ballet free use of the band shell.




Nevertheless, Drescher wrote that in the future, all parade duties will be conducted by the Ashland Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and not by the chamber of commerce itself.




The non-profit foundation does not receive money or provide any services for the city and is not controlled by and does not report to the chamber, said Drescher.




"Shifting the parade to the foundation may be overkill, but, hopefully, that will avoid even the appearance of entwinement with the city that could be perceived as state action," Drescher said.




Brain was at a convention in Pennsylvania and could not be reached for comment regarding Dresher's letter, but had told the Tidings that he sought an attorney's advice because "the chamber has to obey the rules that govern us in this country."




"You can't be charged a different amount for what your content says," Brain said. "But more than that, it's about our rights. I'd like people to educate themselves about the Bill of Rights and fight for them. They don't just sit on a shelf, they have to be exercised."




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