Weekly Standard writer (and Washington Examiner alumnus) Mark Hemingway has a must-read story in the current edition of his magazine on the various ways so-called human rights commissions at the state and local government level trample the Constitution and the abuse their power.
His article — entitled “The Sensitivity Apparat” – highlights the ironic case of a DC bar called the Pug, whose owner, Tony Tomelden, advertised a brew called Marion Berry’s Dirty Asian Summer Punch. The beverage was obviously a joke at the expense of the city’s Ward 8 councilman and former mayor, Marion Barry, who went off a series of well-publicized racist tirades against Asians last year.
The District of Columbia Office of Human Rights didn’t see it that way. They told Tomelden in a letter he was violating the District human rights laws and that he had 72 hours to remove the sign. He was informed a first-time offender could be fined as much as $10,000(!) for displaying a sign that is “not demonstrative of the shared values and practices that make the District a fully inclusive environment.”
Barry’s comments were not exactly small news locally. It’s safe to say nearly everyone bellying up to the bar at The Pug understood right off that Tony was making a joke at the expense of Barry’s racism, not making fun of Asians, when he posted the sign advertising “The Ward 8 Special,” namely, “Marion Berry’s Dirty Asian Summer Punch!” So Tony fired off a response to Gustavo F. Velasquez, the director of the D.C. Office of Human Rights. “I wrote a letter back saying, ‘I received your warning and I fully intend to take the sign down, but is there any way you can send me a copy of the letter you sent Marion Barry after he made his comments on Asians?’” he says. Aping the language of the letter addressed to him, Tony wrote to Velasquez, “I believe [Barry’s] comments would fall under the umbrella of making a certain people feel ‘objectionable, unwelcome, unacceptable, or undesirable.’” Not surprisingly, no copy of such a letter addressed to Barry has been forthcoming.
And since Tony is on the taller side, with a pale complexion and sandy hair, his ethnicity is not entirely obvious. Along with the letter, he included a picture of his father, an Air Force veteran in the cockpit of an airplane. There’s no mistaking the half-Filipino, half-Irish heritage of the elder Tomelden. In the letter, Tony goes on to make the intent of his satirical cocktail painfully clear:
[My father] was always proud of being from D.C., and he was always a fan of Marion Barry. Unfortunately, he passed away not too long ago, so I have no way of knowing how he would have reacted to Mr. Barry’s comments regarding Asians in Ward 8, quickly followed by his comments about Filipino nurses. I can only assume that it would not have pleased him.
According to Tony, Velasquez claimed not to have gotten the joke in the sign until he received Tony’s letter: “Once we received your pictures,” Velasquez said, “we realized that we had mistaken what the sign meant. But we had already started the process and we had to finish it.” If the director of a D.C. agency claims he didn’t understand what “Marion Berry’s Dirty Asian Summer Punch” referred to, either he’s lying, has no sense of humor, is profoundly ignorant, or all of the above.
Hemingway’s story goes on to note the various other cases across the country in which these commissions — which are far more common than you may think — have bullied and intimidated people for exercising their First Amendment rights of speech and association. The fines and legal fees can be crushing and the negative publicity can be ruinous.
In some cases the commissions are literally corrupt, using their powers to exactly like a protection racket to extort money from people by threatening to investigate them if they don’t make “donations”.
It’s a crackerjack piece of reporting that also makes it distressingly clear why no reform is likely to happen anytime soon on this front. Aside from the Tomelden case, most of the other cases the article cites involve Christian groups or conservative writers who dared to be politically incorrect.
Hemingway quotes one lawyer saying:
“[The commissions' actions are] applied in a way that most left-leaning people would look at it and say, ‘Okay, I agree with that.’ But what the public needs to understand is that the same principles apply on the other side,” Campbell says. “Whether you’re the African American who doesn’t want to promote some white supremacist event, or whether you’re a homosexual business owner that doesn’t want to print something that says homosexuality is immoral—whoever you are, this could ultimately be turned around on you if these laws are applied fairly.”
Those above scenarios are theoretically possible but highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. The Tomelden case was the exception that proves the rule — It happened largely because the DC office is apparently staffed by a bunch of dummies.
The theoretical African American businessman who refuses to print a white supremacist group’s flier just isn’t likely to face the same ordeal as Tomelden. These commissions are set up to harass and intimidate the politically incorrect. The average liberal will look at the list of mainly Christian groups these commissions act against and think, “Well, the commissions are working as intended.” To the extent this violates Constitutional rights, liberals will simply rationalize that away. As Hemingway himself notes, the American Civil Liberties Union union almost involves itself in these cases.