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3 Counties Sued by Gay Advocacy Group

Rights: Members claim they were unlawfully barred from attending a speech by Dr. Laura.

January 30, 2002|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A gay and lesbian advocacy group whose members were denied access to a speech by talk show host Laura Schlessinger in September filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the three Southern California counties that sponsored the address.

Seven members of Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services, a private group that works with gay and lesbian foster children, said police were called to escort them from the Palm Springs banquet hall where Schlesinger was to appear because they were wearing T-shirts reading "StopDrLaura.com."

Represented by the ACLU of Southern California, the advocates contend their 1st Amendment rights were violated.

Schlessinger, a conservative talk show host who has been at odds with the gay and lesbian community because of her view that homosexuality is wrong, was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Southern Counties Placement Conference in Palm Springs. The annual conference, sponsored by Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino county social service agencies, focuses on issues concerning foster care and adoption.

Members of Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services said they have joined other private and public adoption and foster agencies at the conference for 17 years. This, however, was the first time they have been barred from attending any portion of the two-day, $200 event, held Sept. 20 and 21.

Michael Ferrera, the group's director of public policy, said members knew that Schlessinger would be speaking and asked the conference committee to choose another speaker. The group noted Schlessinger's stance on homosexuality, which they say she has characterized on her talk show as a "biological defect."

When event organizers decided to go forward with Schlessinger, representatives of Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services said they planned to attend and listen peacefully while wearing black shirts with red letters reading "StopDrLaura.com," referring to an anti-Schlessinger Web site run by an unrelated gay and lesbian watchdog group.

Some of those attending also tried to distribute pamphlets titled "Words Can Hurt," focusing on how negative speech can harm children. The pamphlets did not specifically mention Schlessinger.

"The government can choose anyone they want to speak," said Martha Matthews, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. "But they can't then suppress the critics of those they choose as keynote speakers. They wanted to express their disagreement and they couldn't, and that's a violation of their rights."

Representatives of Orange and Riverside county governments declined to comment on the suit, saying they had not had time to review the allegations. San Bernardino County officials could not be reached.

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