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Jewish World Review Feb. 22, 2000 /16 Adar I, 5760

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Promoting civility through conflict

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- TOO OFTEN, American civil-rights lawyers promote conflict rather than civility. Consider a case involving Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va.

The tale begins in 1993, when the school readmitted Mark Phillips, a former goof-off who returned to complete a degree in philosophy after becoming wizened by harsh experience. During several years of absence from the campus, a neuromuscular disorder robbed him of the power to walk.

Phillips informed Mary Washington of his disability, and the institution agreed to let him live alone in a room designed for two students. He signed a statement accepting the college's stipulation that he pay an extra $300 per semester for his privacy.

Fredericksburg is a hilly place, and location means everything -- especially to a young man confined to a wheelchair. So, the college put Phillips in a dormitory atop a hill, near the appropriately lofty location of the philosophy department. Officials made other small gestures: They installed a soda machine on his floor and persuaded the local phone company to run a special line into his room.

Phillips completed the 1992-93 school year and paid for everything but the special housing fee. The school sent him a bill for $600 along with some menacing language about collection agencies. In response, he filed a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, alleging discrimination.

HUD launched a dilatory investigation. It asked the college for some information, nosed around and fell silent. Meanwhile, the school tried to smooth things over. Administrators offered to move Phillips to another dorm with larger quarters and get him a roommate so he wouldn't have to pay the extra money. Although most other places were in less ideal surroundings, school officials figured he could make his way around in his car.

Here, both sides seem to have hardened their positions. Phillips refused the relocation plan, and the school began nagging him for the cash. At HUD's prompting, Mary Washington agreed to back off until federal attorneys could figure out whether the college had violated the Fair Housing Act.

Phillips spent another year in the room of his choice and graduated in 1994. Mary Washington did not demand payment of the bill, which had reached $1,200. Nor did it report the matter to credit bureaus, as it had threatened earlier.

Several months after Phillips' departure, however, the college renewed its collection activities. Phillips contacted HUD, which told the school that its insistence on collecting the owed money was tacky at best and possibly illegal. With that, the institution agreed to forget about the fee.

Case closed, right? Wrong: The Department of Justice decided to make an example of Mary Washington by threatening a lawsuit. Indeed, it seemed to encourage a showdown in court recently when it tried to bully the school into adopting a settlement agreement packed with demands.

The government wanted the college to pay unspecified damages to Phillips (earlier drafts of the settlement mentioned a figure of $85,000 as recompense for a $1,200 dunning notice), rewrite all its manuals to include special mention of handicapped students, describe procedures under which students could bring suit against the school, and put pictures of wheelchair-bound scholars in the student handbook.

Mary Washington also would have to organize a federally approved sensitivity-training session in which professors and administrators would get proper re-education -- and encouragement to use wheelchairs for a week.

The college also was supposed to let a Richmond-based advocacy group, Housing Opportunities Made Equal, conduct an annual on-campus seminar about discrimination against the handicapped. HOME helped Phillips file the initial complaint.

There is more: The feds demanded extensive and regular reports and wanted Mary Washington to let the Justice Department sue before the sides settled. This would enable the federal government to establish a precedent in housing-discrimination cases and "send a message" to institutions around the country.

The school refused the deal, and the matter will go before a federal judge on March 25 -- a perfect example of what's wrong with American jurisprudence. Congress has drafted statutes filled with high-toned language that give government attorneys the power to enforce the law according to their own prejudices and tastes -- a power they often use.

One passage in the proposed settlement contains some key phrases -- "reasonable accommodations," "practices or services that may be necessary," "handicapped person," "equal opportunity to use and enjoy" -- that government attorneys can mold to suit their needs.

In this instance, the Clinton administration seems more determined to make examples of recalcitrant citizens than to make sense. Mary Washington and Mark Phillips made their peace after a long and emotional feud. Now, thanks to the Clinton administration, they will return to war.

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