Gay Parade Case Tests Free-Speech Rights

THE Supreme Court hears the much publicized South Boston St. Patrick's Day parade dispute between an Irish-American gay and lesbian group and a war veterans group today.

Yet the case, which springs out of a 1993 Massachusetts court decision to allow a homosexual group to march in a private St. Patrick's Day parade, is not truly a ''gay-rights'' case, legal scholars say. The court is hearing one of the most important First Amendment issues of the year: What are the terms under which people can associate privately?

Since 1947, the St. Patrick's Day parade in South Boston has been organized by the private Allied War Veterans Council, which set very loose rules for participation -- banning only extreme groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. In 1992, however, the council voted against allowing participation by the Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston (GLIB).

But a Massachusetts court decided that the parade as constituted fell under state laws of public accommodation and that the organizers could not discriminate based on sexual preference.

The court noted that the Boston Bruins (the city's hockey team) were permitted to march without special inquiry into their purpose for doing so. GLIB fell under the same rights of free speech, it found.

SINCE 1994, the Veterans Council has adopted new written guidelines restricting the parade marchers to those commemorating the role of traditional Irish families. GLIB has not contested its right to do so.

The high court may well articulate in this case a more specific set of guidelines about the degree to which the purposes of a group organizing for public expression need to be stated. In this sense, the case has broad ramifications for all aspects of organized free speech.

As for the gay-rights dimension, legal scholar Mark Tushnet of the Georgetown Law School in Washington notes, ''It isn't a gay-rights case, but the public will certainly see it as such. And that means the Court will consider the gay aspect in its ruling.''

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