A Parade Is More Than Getting from Here to There

June 22, 1995|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- A unanimous Supreme Court, speaking through Justice Souter, cleared its throat and said, ''If there were no reason for a group of people to march from here to there except to reach a destination, they could make the trip without expressing any message beyond the fact of the march itself. . . Hence we use the word 'parade' to indicate marchers who are making some sort of collective point. . . Parades are thus a form of expression, not just motion.''

Such truisms can be steppingstones to important truths, and were so on Monday when the court held that the organizers of Boston's St. Patrick's Day parade had a First Amendment speech right to exclude from the parade GLIB, an organization of Irish-American gays, lesbians and bisexuals eager to express pride in their heritage and sexual orientation, and to express solidarity with similar people who have tried to march in New York's parade.

The annual parade is organized by an association of South Boston veterans groups headed by John J. ''Wacko'' Hurley, who does not cotton to being lectured by lower courts about the virtues of ''diversity.'' GLIB sued him and the other parade organizers, citing, among other things, the state public accommodations law which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation relative to the admission of any person to ''any place of public accommodation, resort or amusement.''

Two Massachusetts courts sided with GLIB, praising diversity. They argued that the parade includes so many patriotic, moral, religious, commercial and public service themes, from denunciations of drugs to denunciations of (naturally) the British, that the parade is ''eclectic'' and lacks ''genuine selectivity.'' Therefore it lacks an expressive purpose and is not entitled to protection under the First Amendment. It is an open recreational event and subject to the public accommodations law.

Not so, said the Supreme Court, which is rarely unanimous these days. If constitutional protection were accorded only to narrow, succinct and harmonious messages, such protection would be denied to (for example) Jackson Pollock paintings and newspaper opinion pages. There is no evidence of any intent of the parade organizers to exclude individual homosexuals from the various participating groups. Rather, they objected to the GLIB unit, which wanted to conscript the parade into

transmitting an ideological message the organizers did not want to transmit.

Said the court, a parade is an inherently expressive activity and the First Amendment protects a speaker's ''autonomy'' in choosing the content of his message, including what not to express as well as what to express. If the parade organizers did not want to celebrate what GLIB wanted to celebrate, their First Amendment right not to be coerced into doing so cannot be abridged by a state's public accommodations law.

This is not a new notion. In 1977 the court upheld the right of a Jehovah's Witness in New Hampshire to edit, with metal shears or tape or something, his license plate, which bore the state slogan ''Live Free or Die.'' He said, ''Life is more precious than freedom'' and the court said New Hampshire could not compel him to ''foster'' any religious or political ''concepts'' with which he disagreed.

The court implied that only mottos ''not ideologically neutral'' were editable, so presumably Idaho can deal roughly with anyone who obliterates from his plates the ringing words ''Famous Potatoes.'' Justice Rehnquist, dissenting in 1977, said the logic of the court's ruling was that the words ''In God We Trust'' on the currency violate the First Amendment speech autonomy rights of atheists. But the 1977 majority said au contraire, currency is generally in pockets, not ''displayed.''

But back to Boston. ''Our tradition of free speech,'' said the court Monday, ''commands that a speaker who takes to the street corner to express his views in this way should be free from interference by the state based on the content of what he says.'' GLIB wanted Massachusetts to, in effect, edit the parade as an expressive event.

GLIB's suit against the parade organizers is illustrative of the ''progressive'' agenda. It was just one more skirmish in a struggle -- conducted in the name of enlarged rights, naturally -- to break more and more private organizations to the saddle of the state. As such, the suit illustrates how the language of rights is used in attempts to diminish freedom by making more and more of life government-supervised and mandatory. It vindicates the wit who said that liberals do not care what you do, as long as it is compulsory.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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