Politically correct in Annapolis

April 23, 1992

One can hardly fault the spirit of the sexual harassment bill that the city of Annapolis whisked into law last week. As was made abundantly clear in the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill spectacle late last year, improper sexual pressure in the workplace is an elusive problem.

Trouble is, Annapolis' new ordinance offers a good deal less protection than its billing suggests. It purports to elevate sexual harassment to the level of misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail. Harassment is defined as "any sexual overture or physical contact of a sexual nature," including deliberate and repeated gestures or comments, "and the display of graphic materials . . . not necessary for business purposes."

But the prohibited conduct spelled out in the law isn't the act of sexual harassment itself, but making acquiescence to the harassment a condition of employment. Thus, a boss making lewd comments and suggestions is, under this law, completely within his rights until he threatens the employee with firing, demotion or transfer. Proponents say the law -- applicable to companies with fewer than 15 workers -- expedites and expands existing administrative remedies available via the state Human Relations Commission and federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Both agencies deal with companies with more than 15 employees and both, owing to long investigations, are impossibly backlogged.

Despite the claims of its supporters, however, this narrowly construed ordinance doesn't fill the gap. It may offer speedy recourse in the most egregious of sexual harassment cases, those in which an employee is actually fired, demoted or hit with some other punitive action. But it doesn't address the more common problem -- when an individual is forced to work in the face of intolerable sexual persuasion or innuendo and just wants the behavior to stop.

Even in clear-cut cases in which a worker has been professionally harmed, he or she has to establish a strong link between the job action and prior sexual harassment. There are other problems with this law. We can conceive of cases in which charges might be brought frivolously with little or no investigation; others where a worker is justly fired but still charges that the action was sexually motivated.

Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden and his fellow city council members were undoubtedly attempting to take a real shot at discouraging sexual harassment with this law. But it's hopelessly off point. What it does is reveal glaring shortcomings in the laws already on the books that need to be dealt with. Foremost among these is the exemption, under state and federal laws, of companies with fewer than 15 employees and prolonged investigations by enforcement agencies.

In the meantime, it looks like Annapolis now has no choice but to deal with a law that is politically correct but practically unworkable.

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