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.