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Syracuse Council agrees to pay judgment on protester's legal fees

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO Public Media
The Syracuse Common Council.

The city of Syracuse will pay the legal fees of a self-described ‘Christian evangelist’ protester after a federal judge ruled his free speech was violated. Some residents were demanding Syracuse common councilors not approve the payment.

The council voted unanimously to pay the judgment. Council President Helen Hudson said if they did not approve it, the city could have been held in contempt.

“Are we happy as a council that we have to pay this money out?" Hudson asked. "No, we’re not. This man sits around, he antagonizes, he calls out all kinds of slurs, and we have to put up with it. The judge didn’t see it fair enough to side with the city. We have to go by what the federal judge has ordered us to do.”

Deferio brought the lawsuit against the city after police ordered him to move across the street from the CNY Pride festival he was protesting in 2014 and 2015. A judge awarded Deferio $1 in compensation, ruling police could not restrict Deferio’s ability to protest with a buffer zone. The city of Syracuse was ordered to pay $127,000 for Deferio’s attorney fees.

Several councilors said they received phone calls and messages from residents upset and in disbelief over the settlement, encouraging councilors to vote against it. But Councilor Joe Driscoll said the city has been fighting it for two years.

“Voting it down would only mean that we would be faced with further judgements, more interest, more fines, and we would eventually have to pay the judgment.”

Councilor Steven Thompson and others say police made the right call at the time. But Thompson said the city’s legal counsel has met with the police department and has given their interpretation of what the judge issued and what directions police should follow.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.