BOSTON — Uninvited groups that want to march along South Boston's annual St. Patrick's Day parade route must walk at least a mile behind authorized marchers, a federal magistrate judge has ruled, granting a legal victory to parade organizers.
The South Boston Allied War Veterans Council, which hosts the annual event, sued the city of Boston and its police department in U.S. District Court in Boston after police allowed an anti-war group to march at the end of this year's parade.
Judge Robert B. Collings ruled on Dec. 29 that allowing unauthorized groups to march so close to the actual parade was a violation of the organizers' free-speech rights.
"This decision says the city can't compel us to say something we don't want to say," said Chester Darling, an attorney for parade organizers.
The judge's decision came as no surprise to parade organizer John "Wacko" Hurley. Organizers have long battled to keep gay and lesbian groups out of the annual event, winning their case in the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1995 ruling Hurley v. Irish-American Gay Group of Boston.
"This should be the end of it," said Hurley, a Navy veteran. "If protesters come within a mile, we'll see them in court."
The city is considering whether it will appeal. "We are reviewing the decision, and we'll have no further comment at this time," police spokeswoman Mariellen Burns said after Collings' decision.
The anti-war group Veterans For Peace, which was not named as a defendant in the suit, was initially supposed to walk behind police cars and street sweepers following the March 16 parade, but was given permission by police to walk in front of them because the vehicles were generating so much dust. About a dozen members of the group carried anti-war signs and an American flag and marched closely behind the authorized parade.
Veterans For Peace wanted to participate in the parade because the group felt its point of view was not represented.
"We felt we had a legitimate voice as veterans, and we were miffed at the fact that the parade was dedicated to veterans yet we weren't allowed to march," said Lee Vander Laan, a Vietnam-era Air Force veteran who participated in the march. "We felt we were not allowed to march because our political point of view was unpopular with the members of the Allied War Veterans Council."
In his decision, Collings said it was too easy to confuse the uninvited marchers with the authorized marchers.
"There simply is no discernible way to distinguish the protest marchers from the parade body as evidenced by the various newspaper reports and reactions from parade spectators," the judge wrote.
The annual parade, which draws as many as a million spectators to the largely Irish neighborhood, provides protest groups with a captive audience to get their message across, Darling said.
"They hijacked my clients' audience," he said. Some parade organizers were outraged by Veterans For Peace, he said.
City Councilor Jim Kelly, who represents the neighborhood, was "elated" with the decision.
"This protest group is entitled to have their own parade, and if they feel strongly about demonstrating their rights, they should do that," he said. "But they should not try to intrude on somebody else's parade."
Veterans For Peace was considering marching at the back of the 2004 St. Patrick's Day Parade, but the Dec. 29 decision essentially thwarts those plans, Vander Laan said.