Corp. Counsel withdraws argument on Human Rights Law

DC Government Withdraws
Assault on Human Rights Law

Statement by GLAA President Rick Rosendall
Friday, January 30, 1998

On the morning of January 28, in response to an inquiry made by the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance (GLAA) two weeks earlier, DC Corporation Counsel John Ferren informed me that he had instructed lawyers on his staff to file a praecipe (an amendment) in Superior Court to withdraw an argument from the brief filed by the government in late December in Civil Action 96-1338, Margie Hunter v. District of Columbia, et al. The argument in question had been that the DC Fire Department is not a place of public accommodation as defined in the DC Human Rights Law of 1977, "and therefore is not covered by the Act." The brief had been signed by Assistant Corporation Counsel Steven J. Anderson, and (as often happens due to their heavy workload) Ferren had not seen the brief before it went out.

Once Ferren examined the government's brief at my request, he agreed that their argument concerning the DC Human Rights Law was flawed and should not have been made. His unusual step of formally withdrawing the argument from the brief is most welcome, and I publicly thanked and praised him for it at a previously-scheduled press conference that was held later that day by leaders of several local gay organizations.* Ferren's responsiveness and leadership in exercising quality control and supervision displayed qualities that we would like to see in greater evidence at the Fire and Police departments.

(I should note that Acting Police Chief Sonya Proctor has pledged an early resumption of sensitivity training at MPD; she has asked UDC to assist in developing a new training curriculum; and she has pledged to allow gay leaders to review the gay-related portion of that curriculum before implementation.)

Subsequent news reports by The Washington Post (Jan. 29) and The Washington Blade (Jan. 30) gave the false impression that Ferren's decision to withdraw the Human Rights Law argument was in response to the outcry from gay activists that began the previous day with the announcement of our Jan. 28 press conference. As I have indicated, Ferren's decision was not a sudden reversal but a considered judgment based upon careful review of the government's brief, prompted by my inquiry some two weeks earlier.

We still dispute the government's continued claim that the bigoted remarks made by a Fire Department Emergency Medical Services caregiver against a gravely injured Tyra Hunter in August 1995 are protected under the First Amendment. On the contrary, we hold that the First Amendment was designed to protect the people from their government, not vice versa. Frankly, given the material facts that the District now concedes in the case, we think that the government ought to settle the case and stop wasting taxpayer money fighting it. Further, those facts show more clearly than ever the need for the Fire Department to implement the long-awaited sensitivity training for Fire Department personnel.

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* In addition to myself, the other participants in the January 28 press conference were: Sharen Johnson of Gay Men and Lesbians Opposing Violence (GLOV), Jessica Xavier of Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Darren Buckner of DC Coalition of Black Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals, and Dee Curry and Earline Budd of Transgenders Against Discrimination and Defamation (TADD).