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Laura Curran vetoes bill allowing first responders to sue for 'discrimination'

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran on Tuesday Aug.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran on Tuesday Aug. 10, 2021 vetoed proposed legislation to give first responders the right to sue under the county Human Rights Law when they face "discrimination."  Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran on Tuesday vetoed a bill to give police and other first responders the right to sue under the county Human Rights Law when they face "discrimination" from protesters or others.

Curran cited a new opinion by the office of state Attorney General Letitia James questioning the constitutionality of the bill, which the Nassau County Legislature approved Aug. 2 after a lengthy and divisive public hearing.

In her veto letter to lawmakers, Curran acknowledged the "genuine concern" of community members "that the law would intimidate free citizens from engaging in peaceful demonstrations without fear of retaliation."

Curran continued: "There is no consensus among elected officials and the public that this current legislation is necessary, carefully crafted and without negative consequences."

Rick Sawyer, James’ special counsel for Hate Crimes, told Curran in a letter that the bill "presents constitutional questions serious enough to guarantee multiple court challenges to its validity."

Sawyer argued, "whether the law would survive such challenges is by no means clear, but the County would bear the full brunt of the cost of defending the law. Those costs, and this law, are unnecessary because the Penal Law and Nassau Administrative Code already provide an array of enhanced protections for first responders."

Opponents say the proposed law could intimidate people seeking to protest peacefully.

Representatives of a coalition including the New York Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and the LGBT Network, a nonprofit advocacy group for LGBT people on Long Island and in Queens, testified against the legislation before it passed Aug. 2.

Backers of the added protections for first responders say incidents of harassment and violence against police officers have increased nationwide over the past year.

Leaders of the Nassau County Police Benevolent Association, the Superior Officers Association and the Correction Officers Benevolent Association spoke in favor of the legislation at the legislative meeting.

In her veto message Tuesday, Curran said the "sobering advice" from James' office shows the law, "although well-intentioned, leaves open the possibility that it would chill the rights of citizens to peaceably assemble and freely express their views."

Chris Boyle, a spokesman for majority Republicans, said in a statement, "The Legislative Majority stands firmly behind Law enforcement, and will continue to do everything they can to deter violence against them. It's unfortunate that the County Executive has vetoed this bill that would help to deter the assault, menacing and harassment of police officers and other first responders. Majority legislators are currently discussing next steps."

Nassau PBA president James McDermott said he was "disappointed" in Curran's veto. "Incidents of first responders being menaced and harassed have gone up considerably in the last few years and the County Executive has sided against the legislature and against police officers and others who perform their jobs in harm's way," McDermott said.

An override of Curran's veto appears unlikely.

A 13-vote supermajority would be required to override. The bill passed the county legislature, which Republicans control with an 11-8 majority, on a 12-6 vote, with Legis. C. William Gaylor III (R-Lynbrook) absent.

Two members of the Democratic caucus voted for the bill. One of them, Legis. Joshua Lafazan, a Woodbury independent who caucuses with Democrats, has said he would not support a veto override.

"The intent of this bill was always to protect those first responders who protect us here in Nassau," said Lafazan. "As a lawmaker I of course respect the opinion of NY’s Attorney General Tish James. Therefore, I respect the County Executive’s decision to veto this bill based on the AG’s guidance, and will not vote to override County Executive Curran."

The county's Human Rights Law covers people who have been discriminated against for their religion, race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, or marital status.

The Legislature in 2019 extended protections against discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations to veterans and first responders.

Under the proposed legislation, the penalty for discrimination against first responders would be up to $25,000 per violation — five times more than people can seek under current human rights law — or up to $50,000 for violations occurring "in the course of participating in a riot."

Curran and all Nassau County legislators are up for reelection this fall.

Republican Bruce Blakeman, a Hempstead Town Council member, is challenging Curran for county executive.

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