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A local Vietnam War veteran is suing the National Park Service over his First Amendment right to distribute Buddy Poppies and receive donations for the Veterans of Foreign Wars on the National Mall.
Barboursville resident John P. "Big John" Miska, who is the commander of Ruckersville's VFW post, has filed the suit against the National Park Service, agency director Mary A. Bomar, Washington-area director Peggy O'Dell and Dwight E. Pettiford, chief of the National Park Service Police.
Miska, who is being represented by an attorney from the Albemarle County-based Rutherford Institute, said he brought the lawsuit to help defend the rights of the country for which he fought.
"This is not about me," Miska said Monday. "This is about everybody's rights. There has been a constant erosion of our constitutional values and constitutional rights. If we do not stand up for our rights, we lose our rights."
Buddy Poppies are small, artificial flowers made by disabled veterans and distributed to people who want to raise awareness of veteran issues and support the VFW. In the suit, Miska explains that he silently holds the poppies out to interested passersby while standing on a public sidewalk or on a bench. He also has a bucket that indicates the poppies are being offered by VFW Post 8208 to support wounded troops. Miska said he does not solicit donations from people who take poppies, although often times people offer money.
"By being there as veterans and wearing our hats and handing out the poppies, we are raising the consciousness and serve as a visual representation of what those memorials mean," he said. "If someone is moved to offer a donation, what is the harm in that?"
Miska's suit mentions three incidents in the last year where park officials who told him that he was violating the agency's regulations interrupted his distribution of Buddy Poppies on the National Mall:
l In November 2007, the suit said Miska was handing out Buddy Poppies while on a sidewalk near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. A National Park Service ranger reportedly approached him after seeing someone put a donation in the bucket and told Miska that he either needed to leave or stop accepting donations for the poppies.
l On April 26, Miska was on a bench near the memorial, handing out poppies and accepting donations without a bucket. A park ranger approached Miska, the suit said, and told him that he needed to have a permit to sell the poppies. After speaking with the ranger, a U.S. Park police officer approached Miska and wrote him a $50 ticket for panhandling. The Office of the Attorney General later declined to file charges against Miska.
l On July 4, the suit said Miska brought poppies, the bucket and VFW literature to the National Mall, which had security checkpoints because of the holiday. A U.S. Park police captain reportedly told Miska that he couldn't accept donations on the mall or he would be arrested. Later that day, Miska sat on a bench near the memorial and handed out poppies to people who requested them. When a group of women tried to donate money to Miska, the suit, said a Park Service volunteer approached and told them not to give Miska any money. The volunteer also told Miska to leave, which he did after Park Police said they would take his poppies and arrest him unless he left.
Randy Myers, an attorney with the National Park Service, said Monday that he hadn't seen the lawsuit yet. The suit was filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Miska approached The Rutherford Institute over the summer about the incident. John W. Whitehead, founder and president of the human rights and civil liberties organization, said Monday that he thought the situation was very unusual.
"I'm just amazed at how we treat our veterans in this country," Whitehead said. "It's freedom of speech. The First Amendment said you have a right to assemble. He's assembling with his poppies."
Whitehead said that he doesn't believe that Washington's panhandling law applies in this case because Miska is not asking anyone for money or pressuring anyone to take a poppy. The constitutional attorney said he is unaware of any citizen complaints made to the National Park Service Police about Miska and the poppies.
Miska said the money donated through the Buddy Poppies is used to support the VFW Relief Fund. His post uses it to pay for care packages sent to deployed troops, supplies for hospitalized veterans, meals for veterans and other expenses.
In addition to allowing VFW members to distribute Buddy Poppies and accept donations on the National Mall, Miska's suit is asking for attorney fees. A court date has not yet been set.