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A federal judge has ordered the City of Auburn to allow an anti-war veterans group to march in Saturday’s annual Veterans Day Parade, ruling the city has violated one of the very rights it celebrates veterans for defending – the right to free speech.

U.S. District Chief Judge Marsha Pechman this morning issued a temporary restraining order preventing the city from barring Veterans for Peace (VFP) from marching in the parade, purported to be the largest Veterans Day parade west of the Mississippi. In doing so, Pechman said the city was “wrong” in its efforts to craft rules to exclude the VFP from the celebration.

Pechman, who ruled from the bench after arguments, said it appeared “some vague group” within the city had decided that the VFP’s anti-war message was “offensive.” But protecting unpopular speech “is what the First Amendment is all about,” Pechman said.

The city’s attorney, Daniel Heid, had argued that the city was thanking veterans for their contributions and for “defending freedoms around the world,” and that the VFP’s anti-war message, peace flags and reminders of the human and financial tolls of conflict were antithetical to that message.

Pechman, however, quickly pointed out that among those freedoms was the right to free speech. She said rules promulgated by the city in the past year to try to refine that message so the city could control parade participants — particularly Veterans for Peace — were “very broad” and didn’t accomplish what the city intended.

Pechman said it would be a stretch to somehow arrive at the conclusion that the VFP’s message that “peace is a good thing” is somehow dishonoring veterans. She ordered the city to ensure that the group’s placement in the parade is “in keeping” with its members’ status as veterans.

Mayor Peter B. Lewis,  a Vietnam veteran, wrote in a sworn declaration that he “knew the pain felt by military personnel returning home from Vietnam to see their efforts criticized,” and said he suspects that at least some of the problems vets faced afterwards were due to the “negative reception they received upon their return.” The city goal, he said, has been to make sure that never happens again, and “recognize the tremendous effort, courage and commitment demonstrated by those who have served …”

Lewis declined to comment after Pechman’s decision. He said the parade would go on as planned Saturday.

VFP filed a lawsuit against parade organizers on Monday after the group was banned from the parade. VFP was joined in the lawsuit by American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, and sought a court order to force the city to allow the group to march in the parade.