The Metro Human Relations Commission comes down on this newspaper for a questionable ad. In an age where everyone’s offended, how polite do we have to be?
In case you don’t recall, the cover of the May 2 issue of LEO featured an irrationally exuberant, slightly tubby young man with his pants down. His boxers are pink, dude. His right hand is clutched in a fist as he appears poised to knock the drunk smile off his own face, while his left is hoisted toward the distance, perhaps at some unfortunate pair of breasts hanging before hundreds of prying eyes in the previous year’s Derby infield.
Offensive? Probably. Stupid?
Other than the few angry calls and e-mails citing the newspaper for advancing dumb party culture, the editors at LEO didn’t hear much pushback from the faithful. And the issue faded from memory like they do — after all, Derby issues these days are de rigueur but mostly unremarkable.
About two months later, a letter arrived on the desk of Darrell Sharp, LEO’s business manager. Alfonso Lanceta, chairperson of the enforcement board of the Metro Human Relations Commission and a contractor who works with the Metropolitan Sewer District, had filed a formal complaint against the newspaper. He didn’t cite the cover. Rather, the complaint was based on a full-page advertisement in the May 2 issue.
The ad for a “Skin Party” at Elmo’s Martini Lounge, now defunct, carried a “No Celebrities Allowed” theme, a fairly transparent play on some of the celeb-hawking parties that happen in the city at Derbytime, revelry that pretty much anyone currently alive in Louisville is aware of. There are two basic types of parties: the Barnstable-Brownish galas and the Unstable Barn-like galas. Each caters to its own set, distinguished mostly by their bank accounts, but all capitalizing on the Louisville equivalent of Mardi Gras.
The part of the Elmo’s ad that Lanceta claimed was discriminatory referred to the Unstable Barn style of Derby soiree: “This Derby Eve, your 15 minutes of fame isn’t going to get you 15 seconds in here. If you have an agent, publicist, third world adopted baby, or front row seats to the Church of Scientology, you have no chance of getting in. Don’t have your people call our people we will not answer (sic).”
Lanceta contended that Elmo’s had attempted to prevent not Angelina Jolie and Tom Cruise from attending its party, but anyone who’s adopted a person from the Third World, as well as all scientologists. The complaint cited both LEO and Elmo’s along the same logic; although the LEO part of the complaint was resolved last week, the Elmo’s portion remains open. There have been no reports of anyone being turned away from the party for any reason. Likewise, neither celebrity showed up.
“I think it’s a terrible waste of resources on the part of the Human Relations Commission,” said Pam Brooks, LEO’s publisher. (Disclosure: I learned of the matter independently of either Brooks or Sharp, and neither disclosed its full details before a settlement had been offered. Further, LEO maintains a professional distinction between its editorial department and administration.)
Brooks said in an interview that she’s frustrated the newspaper has had to spend time and money — $5,145 in attorneys’ fees as of Dec. 3 — fighting over what she considers a non-issue. She also said it’s an outrage that the commission would spend taxpayer money on something so obviously intended to be tongue-in-cheek humor.
“Are you that desperate that you had to come up
with something to justify your job?” Brooks asked rhetorically, adding that many who advertise in LEO gear their messages toward “LEO readers,” which often means inflecting ads with a different flavor than the typical and often staid ads of other print media.
The settlement between LEO and the commission requires that the newspaper print an advertisement — the one appearing both on this issue’s cover and in a spot normally reserved for paid ads, per the settlement — reaffirming its commitment to uphold the standards shared by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Louisville Metro, which prohibit discrimination based on protected class status, i.e. age, race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, familial status, gender identity and sexual orientation. The newspaper also agreed to provide all supervisors and managers with diversity and non-discrimination training within six months. Although LEO has no formal review policy for its advertisements, Brooks said she and Kelly Gream, LEO’s director of advertising and marketing, have final say over what ads go in the paper. She also said each sales representative judges ads for content and context; the Elmo’s ad easily passed muster.
Lira Johnson, LEO’s attorney on this matter, has worked on employment and discrimination cases since 1993, and said she now works with the Metro commission, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights and the EEOC regularly, sometimes daily.
“This is the first time that I’ve had a complaint about an ad that was just a parody,” she said in a recent phone interview. “It’s our position that a reasonable reader would know that this is just playing on the Barnstable-Brown celebrity gala, and we took the position that a reasonable reader would conclude that Elmo’s was not actually preventing anyone from attending its party.”
John Ferré, associate dean of arts and sciences and a media ethics expert at the University of Louisville, said that taking the matter this far should embarrass the commission.
“How does poking fun at Tom Cruise discriminate on the basis of race and national origin?” he wrote in a related e-mail. “This advertisement is an appeal to the common man in every sense of the term. It is not an attack on Third-World babies or scientologists, for that matter. I have to believe that the Metro Human Relations Commission didn’t get the joke.”
The stated mission of the Metro Human Relations Commission is “to promote unity, understanding and equal opportunity among all people of Metro Louisville and to eliminate all forms of bigotry, bias and hatred from the community.” It is divided into two boards: one committed to advocacy, and one tasked with enforcing anti-discrimination laws. Its members — 10 on the advocacy board and seven on enforcement, which meets monthly — are appointed by Mayor Abramson and approved by the Metro Council.
An appropriation in the Metro budget provides the commission’s funding. This year’s allotment is $1,044,700.
Anyone can file a complaint, so long as it is filed within 180 days of the alleged violation. The paid staff at the commission conducts an investigation — there are 14 employees, five of whom are compliance officers who investigate complaints (and who are paid just over $34,000 a year). Respondents often need to retain attorneys at this stage. Once the staff compiles a report, it’s up to the executive director to determine whether there is “reasonable cause to believe that an unlawful practice has been committed,” according to commission literature.
As most often happens, the parties can agree on a settlement at any point during this process. If the parties cannot reach an agreement, however, a complaint moves into a hearing stage, which takes place before an administrative law judge.
The commission usually interacts with newspapers because of classified ads — sometimes landlords seeking tenants try to specify a particular clientele in a classified, even though that is illegal.
Kellie R. Watson, executive director of the commission, said in an interview Monday that the commission must investigate all complaints as if they’re serious, and that a compliance officer can recommend to the director that a frivolous complaint be tossed.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that a lot of (the complaints) are frivolous,” she said. “It’s just that sometimes we’re not able to substantiate the evidence they need (to proceed).”
Watson declined to comment on the complaint against LEO because the Elmo’s portion is still open.
According to its 2004-2006 biannual report, the most current official measure of its activities available, 200 complaints were filed with the commission between July 2005 and June 2006. Of those, 130 were closed; 74 of those were dismissed because of no probable cause.
Most complaints are filed after a problem with an employer, and most of those have to do with race. Housing is the second-most popular area of alleged discrimination, with public accommodation and hate crimes following.
The complaint against LEO was an inside job, an official thing called a commissioner’s complaint. That’s when a commissioner (all seven are volunteers) decides that something has a discriminatory effect on a class of people, not just an individual, and is so harmful that it warrants official inquiry. Lanceta, chairperson of the enforcement board, filed the complaint against LEO and Elmo’s; compliance officer Martha Lawfer, a veteran, investigated it; and Watson agreed, in LEO’s case, to the aforementioned settlement. Lawfer would not comment about the case.
LEO tried repeatedly, for more than a week, to contact Lanceta, whose role in the matter is interesting, to say the least. That’s in part because of his ties to MSD, a quasi-public agency about which this newspaper published a series of investigative stories just six months before Lanceta filed this complaint. LEO found two disconnected phone numbers tied to Lanceta: a cell phone that a business associate claimed was Lanceta’s personal phone, and a number linked to his business, which has contracts with MSD — where Lanceta, an active member of the local Filipino community, was for a time an employee. LEO also located two e-mail addresses linked to Lanceta, one personal and one business. The latter is no longer in service, and the newspaper received no response to a query sent to his personal address.
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