LOS ANGELES ? The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU/SC), representing employees of a Los Angeles child placement agency, Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services (GLASS), today filed a lawsuit against the Southern Counties Placement Committee and several county officials and agencies, for violating the GLASS employees' First Amendment right to express disagreement with the counties' choice of "Dr. Laura" Schlessinger as the keynote speaker at a county-sponsored conference in Palm Springs.
"The case we filed in federal court today is about a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech," said Martha Matthews, David Bohnett Attorney with the ACLU/SC. "When government agencies hold a conference, invite members of the public to attend, and choose a keynote speaker, the government cannot suppress a peaceful, nondisruptive expression of disagreement with the government's choice of speaker."
GLASS, like many other child placement agencies, has participated in the annual Southern Counties Placement Conference for many years. The conference allows county agencies that care for children who cannot live safety at home to learn about providers of placements and services in their area, and for providers to market their services to the county agencies.
GLASS employees were shocked when they learned that the 2001 conference committee, which included Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange County mental health, youth probation, and child welfare agency representatives, chose "Dr. Laura" as the keynote speaker for the September 2001 conference. As has been widely reported, Dr. Laura has publicly referred to gay and lesbian people as "biological errors" and single mothers as "child abusers."
"Someone who the New York Times has called 'The Queen of Hate Radio' should not be presented as a keynote speaker to children's services workers and mental health practitioners," said Teresa DeCrescenzo, Executive Director of GLASS.
Seven GLASS employees decided to attend the 2001 conference, wearing T-shirts with the logo of a website, "StopDrLaura.com," and the question "Are you a biological error?" They also brought copies of an excerpt from a book, "Hate Hurts," about how bigotry harms children.
The GLASS employees registered and paid to attend the conference. Their plan was simply to sit and listen to Dr. Laura's speech, wearing the T-shirts as a silent protest, and use the "Hate Hurts" materials to explain their concerns to other conference attendees. But some of the GLASS employees were never even allowed inside the hotel ballroom. Others, as they waited for "Dr. Laura's" speech to start, were told they'd been "disinvited" from the conference and would have to leave, and were escorted out by police at the conference organizers' request.
"I wanted to educate people about the pain that is caused when youth who are just trying to be accepted for who they are, are told that they are 'biological errors,' and this message is endorsed by county agencies that are supposed to be caring for them," said Michael Ferrera, Director of Public Policy for GLASS.
The lawsuit calls for a permanent injunction requiring defendants and future conference committee members to refrain from suppressing any future non-disruptive protest against the counties' choice of speakers. In addition, the suit also seeks damages for the plaintiffs for the violation of their First Amendment rights.