Three civil rights groups filed a lawsuit Thursday alleging the Salt Lake City Board of Education axed dozens of school clubs for the sole purpose of eliminating the Gay-Straight Alliance at East High School.

"We're trying to gain access for the Gay-Straight Alliance and all the other clubs that have been eliminated in order to keep the Gay-Straight Alliance out," said Carol Gnade, executive director of the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.The lawsuit contends the district is violating the students' free speech and the same rights to equal access as other approved clubs. It also alleges Salt Lake City school officials have allowed some non-clubs not on the list of approved clubs to meet after hours on school grounds.

The lawsuit was filed by Utah and Northern California ACLU chapters, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York and National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco on behalf of two East High students, Ivy Fox and Keysha Barnes, and their respective parents, Kay Kosow Fox and James Barnes.

The lawsuit names the school board, Salt Lake City Superintendent Darline Robles, and Harold J. Trussel, assistant superintendent for curriculum, as defendants.

The district was reviewing the lawsuit at press time and declined to comment, said spokeswoman Sherri Clark.

Salt Lake City Board of Education in February 1996 voted 4-3 to eliminate clubs not tied to courses taught in district schools.

The issue divided the city, and the school board's vote prompted a student walkout at East and West high schools. More than 200 West High students marched on the Utah Capitol while the Utah Legislature was in session. At the time, lawmakers were considering bills to limit student organizations.

The district in 1996 released lists of approved and non-approved clubs for East, West and Highland high schools, in effect terminating 46 clubs that had previously been allowed to meet.

The school district also announced that students at those schools would be allowed to charter additional "curriculum-related" clubs so long as they fall within district policy.

The East High students said they chose not to have the alliance chartered as a curriculum-related student club because they did not want the school district to sponsor or endorse the alliance and because they did not want the alliance controlled by the district.

Still, the students say the special clubs statute is important to them because it provides access to means of communicating with their peers, allows them to make loudspeaker and closed-circuit TV announcements and provides access to other school media and activities.

The plaintiffs' attorneys believe, since the ban, the school district has "misclassified some clubs as curricular when in fact, they're noncurricular."

"Perhaps more disturbing is that the board of education was willing to hurt all of its students by terminating so many important non-cur-ri-cu-lar clubs just to shut out the Gay-Straight Alliance. As far as we know, that's the first time a board of education has been willing to take anti-gay bigotry that far," said David Buckel, a staff attorney for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

"We'll be asking the court to declare that noncurricular clubs exist in the Salt Lake City School District. Under the law, if there's even one noncurricular club, that means the school can't discriminate. They can't pick and choose among the clubs," Buckel said.

The alliance alleges that by allowing the other groups to meet, the school officials have in effect created a "limited public forum" under constitutional definitions.

However, the officials have failed to establish or apply "clear or consistent, content-neutral criteria" for determining which student groups will be allowed to use that limited public forum, the lawsuit states.

"To the contrary, defendants improperly have afforded themselves unlimited discretion, have applied vague standards, and have acted arbitrarily and in a biased manner in deciding which student groups will be allowed to use the limited public forum," the lawsuit states.

The Gay-Straight Alliance is meeting at the school after-hours under the state Civic Center Act, which allows groups from political parties to the Boy Scouts to rent space from schools.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction to allow them the same access as other student groups and equal protection under the law.

The civil rights groups had hoped that the school board would reconsider its action.