ROCKAWAY BEACH — Sign-holding residents were banished by the mayor's office to a "free speech zone" hundreds of feet away from the unveiling of the Rockaway boardwalk — which a de Blasio spokeswoman said was designed to avoid disruptions.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver and local elected officials gathered at the boardwalk at Beach 95th Street at 2:30 p.m. Friday to celebrate the first completed stretch of the $480 million boardwalk, which was rebuilt after being destroyed in Hurricane Sandy.
But DNAinfo New York witnessed a staffer from the mayor's community affairs office telling a group of residents they would have to go to a so-called "free speech zone" hundreds of feet from the event if they wanted to express any concerns.
The zone was located down a wide set of steps from the boardwalk and behind a cordon of rope.
Later other residents told DNAinfo they were informed by multiple officials they would also have to go to the "free speech zone" to hold signs.
"They told me I could not be on the boardwalk with my sign," said Rick Horan, 61, a Rockaway Park resident who had a sign about bike lane access on the boardwalk, which is currently restricted during the day.
"Free speech zone — the term is an oxymoron. If you banish someone to the corner, that's not my idea of free speech," Horan said, adding that he didn't believe parks officers when they first told him to leave. But then NYPD officers and mayoral staff reiterated the order, he said.
He ended up moving behind a cordoned rope behind a barrier, but refused to go down the stairs.
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Phil McManus from the Queens Public Transit Committee also said he was told by a community affairs official from the mayor's office that he had to stand in the special zone with his sign.
He had signs asking for the reactivation of the Rockaway Beach Rail Line and the return of the ferry before the proposed 2017 start date.
An official from the mayor's office confirmed that they prepared a separate section for demonstrators to stand in after seeing "online plans for people who wanted to protest."
"There's always a designated place for signs and chanting so that people can do that if they'd like without blocking events for the audience," a spokeswoman for the mayor's office explained.
"The only people asked to move were those with signs that would have blocked the audience from seeing the event," she added.
The de Blasio spokeswoman added that they wanted to "accommodate protests on site" but also have a smooth event for guests to hear the program and reporters to ask questions.
A similar protest section was designated outside a Hurricane Sandy job fair in Far Rockaway in October and one in Staten Island in April, the mayor's office said.
Information about other uses of the events were not immediately available from the mayor's office.
De Blasio came under fire from locals during his last visit to the peninsula at the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade in March — which he arrived 20 minutes late to and was immediately greeted with boos and jeers from residents.
Jose Velez, a Community Board 14 member and Far Rockaway resident who did not bring a sign to the event and was allowed to stand on the boardwalk, thought people with signs should be able to stand wherever they'd like.
"I think they should be up here," he said. "It's not the mayor's event, at least it shouldn't be. It's for the people of Rockaway."
Another resident, Noreen Ellis, said the crackdown on signs was "Stalin-esque."
"I thought I lived in America, with First Amendment rights," she said. "I guess this is 'de Blasio's America.'"
The Parks Department Commissioner said Friday he did not have information about the free speech zone.
Horan said the "free speech zone" was expecially concerning considering the Memorial Day weekend.
"Doesn't anyone see the irony that on the eve of Memorial Day — where people died for our free speech?"