WHEN IS a parade not a parade? When it's a place.
That bit of gibberish is about as coherent as the oh-so-witty fifth-grade punch line "No soap, radio."
But in Massachusetts these days, it's what passes for legal reasoning. You can find it in the brief submitted to the Supreme Judicial Court by the Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston.
This is the outfit that calls itself GLIB -- an apt self-description -- and insists it has a right to crash the annual St. Patrick's Day parade, which has been organized for the past 47 years by the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council. GLIB's glib argument has won every legal skirmish so far. Today its lawyers are going to try their luck in the commonwealth's highest court.
At 9 o'clock this morning, Philip Cronin of the blue-chip law firm of Peabody & Arnold is going to stand before the SJC and argue -- with a straight face, if he can manage it -- that the St. Patrick's Day parade is nothing more than a "place of public accommodation."
Like Filene's Basement. Like Burger King. Just as Burger King has to sell a cheeseburger to anybody who wants to buy one, so, too -- GLIB's lawyer will say -- the veterans must make room in their parade for any group that applies to march.
Even one that would have scandalized St. Patrick. Even one whose message -- "homosexuality is something to celebrate" -- clashes with the parade's themes of Irishness, family values, Southie pride, and American tradition.
Message? Themes? No, no, no, says GLIB. This parade has no message. It's not about speech or expression. It's not a means of communication. It's just, you know, a place -- like The Ground Round.
Since the veterans have let virtually anybody march in the past -- Republican candidates and Democratic ones, groups Irish and non-Irish, labor unions and corporations -- what reason can they have for excluding us? It can only be because we're gay . . . and discriminating on the basis of sexual preference in a place of public accommodation is illegal in Massachusetts.
Is that glib, or what?
Just one problem: GLIB and its lawyers have no legal precedent to back them up. (Common sense doesn't back them up, either, but in the legal profession, that's not considered a significant failing.) You can read GLIB's brief from cover to cover, and you won't find a single reference to a single case holding that a parade is a place.
Because, of course, it isn't. A parade is an organized gathering for public expression, as classic a First Amendment activity as publishing a newspaper, giving a concert or making a speech. No pressure group, no government agency, no judge could order The Boston Globe to print an article it rejects, or force Aerosmith to play a song it rejects, or make Cardinal Law deliver a homily he rejects.
"Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech . . . or the right of the people peaceably to assemble . . ." The First Amendment cloaks the South Boston Veterans Council in its folds, too. And it takes a pretty expensive lawyer from a pretty tony law firm -- or a cadre of homosexuals hellbent on forcing society to approve their peculiar behavior -- to deny it.
At today's oral argument the justices are likely to ask questions about statutory interpretation and constitutional scope. The real question they ought to ask is: Why?
South Boston veterans organize the city's annual St. Patrick's Day parade
Why must St. Patrick's Day be distorted into some kind of D-Day over sexual politics?
In December, a lower-court judge named J. Harold Flannery swallowed GLIB's inane theory that a parade isn't a parade. Consequently the South Boston veterans, a bunch of old-fashioned soldiers who fought and bled for their country, were stripped of their First Amendment rights. In-your-face gays and lesbians may regard that as a triumph. From here it looks like a travesty.
It also looks like gross hypocrisy. Homosexual militants bristle at the idea that anyone, especially the government, has the right to tell them with whom they may or may not associate -- with whom they do or don't belong -- with whom they can or cannot join. Yet the deference they demand for themselves they would deny to the veterans.
To some people, it seems, respect and freedom of association flow only in one direction.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)