Falun Gong loses appeal of ban from parade

11 Jun


Chinese business leaders in San Francisco have the right to exclude members of the dissident spiritual movement Falun Gong from the annual Chinese New Year parade and a related street fair and flower market fair, a state appeals court has ruled.

As the sponsor of the events, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce is constitutionally entitled to bar participation by anyone who would “interfere with the message the chamber seeks to communicate,” the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco said Friday.

The court relied on a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed sponsors of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Boston to exclude a group of gay, lesbian and bisexual descendants of Irish immigrants. A Massachusetts court had ruled that the ban violated the state’s anti-discrimination law, but the Supreme Court said a parade is a type of free expression and its organizers have the right to control their message.

Falun Gong, which is banned in China, has been barred from taking part in San Francisco’s Chinese New Year parade for most of this decade. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce has cited the group’s opposition to the Chinese government in denying it a place in the parade and a booth at the street fair.

Falun Gong filed suit in 2006 against both the Chamber of Commerce and the city of San Francisco, which provides some funding for the parade along with police protection. A judge dismissed the suit against the city in February 2007, citing a report by the city’s Human Rights Commission that found no discrimination because the Chamber of Commerce, not the city, generally banned political activities at the event.

Falun Gong did not appeal that ruling, but challenged the same judge’s earlier dismissal of its suit against the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. The group conceded that the 1995 Supreme Court ruling applied to the Chinese New Year parade but argued that the street fair and flower fair, from which it was also excluded, are commercial events, not statements of free expression, and are covered by anti-discrimination laws.

The appeals court disagreed, noting that the street fair includes cultural performances and the flower market fair begins with a small parade.

While the dissident group is free to attend or protest any of the events, the court said, onlookers “would likely associate the Chamber (of Commerce) with Falun Gong’s views” if the group were allowed to participate in the events.

The court also ruled that Falun Gong must pay the Chamber of Commerce’s legal bills, under a state law penalizing plaintiffs whose lawsuits interfere with their opponents’ freedom of speech. The chamber said the bills would amount to several hundred thousand dollars.

“It is our hope that Falun now stops this abusive lawsuit,” said Randy Riddle, lawyer for the business group. “This is an important decision for First Amendment rights.”

Roger Myers, a lawyer for Falun Gong, said the ruling is an unwarranted expansion of the Supreme Court’s St. Patrick’s Day decision and his clients may appeal to the state Supreme Court.

“The further you extend (the Supreme Court ruling), the more you narrow California law protecting people against discrimination,” he said.

The ruling is available at www.courtinfo.ca.gov/opinions/documents/A115535.PDF.

(San Francisco Chronicle, Tuesday, June 3, 2008)


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