When Political Correctness Becomes Political Coercion

WHEN Bryan Griggs was notified that a registered letter was awaiting his attention, he was curious. When he opened it, he was stunned:

"The above-named Respondent is hereby charged with unfair employment practices with respect to hostile work environment, discharge and failure to rehire due to sexual orientation (gay) in violation of the Seattle Fair Employment Practices Ordinance, Seattle Municipal Code 14.04, as amended."

Griggs runs CPA Referral, which provides accountant services for businesses in the Seattle area. He was bewildered by the complaint because he has always emphasized courteous treatment of both his customers and his four employees. What did he do to merit a discrimination investigation by the Seattle Human Rights Department that could result in back pay and fines?

He played the radio.

No joke. The letter and Griggs' reaction to it has created a case that both sides say has landmark implications. It began when John Dill, who went to work at CPA Referral last October, was laid off at year's end when business got slow. Griggs told him he hoped he could rehire him in February when business picked up. Dill worked as a volunteer for a couple of weeks but on January 14, he left a letter for his boss announcing that "I feel I must `come out' and stop playing `don't ask, don't tell.' " He went on to say that "For the last 10 years I have been going through the process of (accepting) who I am and what I cannot change. To continue the process I need to be in a supportive environment."

Dill went on to say that, "My prior employer has offered me a position in a Gay Friendly Environment. If you can promise me the same and assure me that I won't be subjected to material I would find offensive, I would like to hear from you."

Exactly how had Dill been offended? Was he called names? No. Was he treated with disrespect because he was gay? No. Griggs says he didn't even know Dill was homosexual until he received the letter.

What Dill found "offensive" was the radio station Griggs played in the office, KVI, which features Rush Limbaugh in the morning, Mike Siegel in the early afternoon and yours truly during the late afternoon.

According to Dill's attorney, LeAnn McDonald, "The radio programs that you allowed to be aired during work hours contained numerous derogatory and inflammatory comments about homosexuals. This is analogous to an employer allowing the Ku Klux Klan to distribute anti-African-American literature in the employee's lunch room."

For the record, I have never heard Rush Limbaugh slur a homosexual. He is far from liberal on the issue of gay rights and pokes fun at all kinds of militants on the left, including gay-rights zealots, but that is a far cry from persecuting homosexuals as a class of citizens. Siegel is actually more liberal on the subject, and has featured members of the gay-rights group Hands Off Washington on his show. When homosexuals call my show, they usually conclude by thanking me for letting them air their side of the story. No one has ever complained of being treated with disrespect.

Dill also pronounced himself distressed because Griggs had posted a letter on the office bulletin board from Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn stating that she is "apprehensive about adopting a new policy to allow homosexuals in the military." Finally, Dill was upset that Griggs had a small post-it note on his desk in his office reminding himself to write a letter to the state Department of Social and Health Services expressing his opposition to gay adoption, which was in the news during that time because of the state's efforts to place a young boy with a homosexual couple in Seattle. Dill never complained about any of these things to his boss, but he went to City Hall claiming to be the victim of employer bigotry.

I know, I know. The hypersensitive we shall always have among us. Some folks get hyper about their race, their gender or their religion. Dill happens to be wound a little tight about his sexual orientation. You can't stop such people from complaining.

But when the city's Human Rights Department heard what he was basing his complaint on, they chose to launch a full-blown investigation.

According to Shelly Cohen of the city's Human Rights Department, if a boss played a radio program that ranted against blacks, it could well be a civil-rights violation. Using that hypothetical stretch, she refused to say that playing KVI is not a violation of a gay person's civil rights. Perhaps missing the irony, she made this remark last Wednesday on KVI.

As for posting a letter from Congresswoman Dunn expressing opposition to gays in the military, Cohen said this could be equated with posting a letter opposing blacks in the military. Gee that's an interesting argument for a civil libertarian to make: Expressing a conservative position on the gays-in-the-military issue might violate civil-rights laws.

Welcome to the Pandora's Box of political correctness. In equating the behavior of sexual orientation with the status of race, the Seattle Human Rights Department has just vividly demonstrated what kind of everyday conduct might suddenly be considered "suspect."

And it should also be a wake-up call to the business community. Businesses have shied away from this issue in the past because its impact on firms was unclear.

Not anymore. Griggs, employer of four, says he has shelled out $5,000 in attorney fees to defend himself. Cohen was asked about this. She said it's a cost of doing business around here.

All too true. But does it have to be?

John Carlson is president of the Washington Institute for Policy Studies in Seattle and hosts an afternoon program on KVI (570 AM). His column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times.