Famed civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, who most recently represented the so-called "Ebola Nurse," held a press conference in Times Square at 9 a.m. this morning to defend his newest client: Santa Claus. Organizers of the widely-dreaded SantaCon retained Siegel last week as part of their seemingly earnest attempt to reform the annual bar crawl's image, and their attorney is determined to defend Santa's First Amendment rights.
"People should understand that whether they agree or disagree with [SantaCon's] message, which is the over-commercialization of Christmas, it doesn't matter," Siegel told reporters. "It doesn't matter what the content of their message is. The First Amendment means that the government cannot prohibit [SantaCon's] expression. They can reasonably regulate their expression, but they can't prohibit it, that would be censorship."
Siegel, who said he's representing SantaCon pro-bono, coordinated a meeting between organizers and NYPD brass from the Midtown South precinct yesterday. According to Siegel, it was a productive meeting, and "by the end the police were shaking hands with SantaCon organizers and everyone was smiling and having a good time. The cops were giving us Tootsie rolls. And I felt I'd done my job, building a bridge between the police and SantaCon."
SantaCon is using Times Square as a staging area, with the precinct's approval, and organizers plan to march to a select list of bars in the Herald Square area later this morning. Siegel said the NYPD was mainly concerned with public urination and vomiting, and that one official suggested that SantaCon pay for porta-potties next year. Organizers told us they raised $60,000 for various charities last year, mostly through partnerships with participating bars.
Siegel also expects to request a parade permit for next year's SantaCon, enabling Santas to march in the street along a pre-planned route. "This is America," Siegel said. "You can't ban people from walking on public streets and being in public spaces. That's not what America is all about. The government can't be calling bars and telling the bars that they can't allow SantaCon to come in. That's a no-no. And if in fact that has been happening, we've been telling the government agencies they should cease and desist that kind of activity."
— Anthony Quintano (@AnthonyQuintano) December 13, 2014
One SantaCon organizer told us he hopes that bad Santas will get the message this year, and argued that the majority of "nice" Santas vastly outnumber the drunk "frat boys" who dominate the media coverage. "They're the ones who show up drunk and give the interviews," Santa said. "So now we're trying to educate the kids about what it's really about."
And what is it really about? "Well, take Christmas," Santa said. "Christmas is not about running each other over on Black Friday, Christmas is about generosity and family and community. Where SantaCon came from was absurdity, culture-jamming and making fun of society and being a bit outrageous. Quite frankly Manhattan could use a bit more of it. SantaCon is one of the few edgy things left in Manhattan. It's getting pretty boring out here."
Pointing to the costumed revelers beginning to stream into Times Square, the organizer said, "It's not all ten dollar Santa suits, there's a lot of creative stuff!"
Siegel said this year's event, which was scaled back considerably in part due to a mass protest against police brutality planned for later today, would be more civil. "We're hoping that today we will either eliminate that negative activity or substantially ameliorate it. You can't control everybody, but the organizers are letting people know the 'do's and don'ts' through social media, and I believe that people will respect that, and at a minimum the kind of activity we've seen in the past will be ameliorated today. Hopefully."
Asked if holding a press conference in Times Square at 9 a.m. on a Saturday was SantaCon's way of getting back at the press for all the negative coverage, one Santa said, "Yes, I would say it's painful for you and Santa both. But when you've got a guy like Norman Siegel saying he wants the press conference at 9 a.m. and you're not paying him, you do what he says."
Siegel, for his part, denied rumors that he was representing the Easter Bunny, who recently lost his Cadbury sponsorship after he told Bill O'Reilly that Easter is "a holiday made up by greedy WASPs to sell more chocolate."
Check back later for more SantaCon coverage as the day staggers on.