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A Modesty Proposal

New York City’s half-baked inquisition.

Feb 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 20 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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The results of the commission’s survey are suspect for a number of reasons. But even though the survey was conducted with the intent of proving the commission’s dubious case against the Jewish business owners, the results aren’t exactly damning. The commission’s own survey found that a plurality did not think the sign would make anyone feel discriminated against on the basis of religion. The survey did find higher numbers of people who felt the sign was unwelcoming based on gender. As absurd as this survey sounds, it was the central piece of evidence the human rights commission was slated to present at another administrative trial that was supposed to take place last week. The defense team for the Jewish businesses, meanwhile, conducted its own survey about reactions to the sign and produced markedly different results—87 percent of respondents thought the sign wasn’t unwelcoming to either men or women. 

However, the human rights commission’s already weak case fell apart before last week’s trial even began. The trial was shaping up to be a matter of dueling witnesses and dueling surveys. The defense team representing the Jewish business owners—headed by Jay Lefkowitz, who served as general counsel in the Office of Management and Budget in George W. Bush’s administration—was to present the head of the research firm that conducted its survey to testify to its scientific validity. For its part, the human rights commission offered no expert to testify on behalf of its survey. 

With no attempt to demonstrate the scientific validity of its survey, the commission would likely be laughed out of a real court of law. But the problem of activist human rights commissions enforcing politically correct orthodoxy is metastasizing precisely because such commissions have broad powers to impose penalties through proceedings outside the actual legal system. Even though these “trials” involve basic constitutional questions, can result in significant fines, require legal representation, and often drag on for years, administrative proceedings don’t provide the accused many of the standard protections one would find in a real courtroom. In fact, human rights commissions around the country are often responsible for both prosecuting and rendering judgment on those accused of violating discrimination ordinances.

It’s telling who the human rights commission did select to testify to the results of its survey. Out of more than 600 New Yorkers interviewed for its survey, the commission selected Joshua Wiles, a public school teacher in nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant, to testify to the fact that Brooklyn residents found the dress code signs discriminatory. 

On January 20—the day before the trial was to begin—The Weekly Standard revealed online that Wiles had previously been arrested as part of an Occupy Wall Street demonstration, and in keeping with his left-wing beliefs, Wiles’s Facebook page was littered with items expressing a deep anti-Israel sentiment. According to Wiles, the creation of the state of Israel is “The Biggest Robbery of World” (sic). He accused the Israeli government of practicing apartheid on multiple occasions. And he accused the Israeli government of targeting innocent civilians and assassinating children. It’s reasonable to wonder if Wiles had his own irration-al prejudices against the Hasidic community in Brooklyn, and the exposure of Wiles’s anti-Israel bias quickly made news in New York’s Jewish community.

The next day, the administrative judge informed the human rights commission that its case was remarkably weak and that it might want to settle. The human rights commission was no doubt surprised by this turn of events—it had hoped to raise the potential fines involved from $2,500 to $75,000. But with the judge disinclined to even hear the case, the commission agreed to a settlement—though it didn’t get much. After more than a year of doggedly pursuing the case and wasting considerable resources on the matter, the city capitulated. It would drop the case against the businesses in Williamsburg and impose no fines. For their part, the businesses agreed that any future dress code signs “will make clear that everybody is welcome, which was the reality,” Lefkowitz told the Daily News

It’s clear that the case had become an embarrassment to the city. Bill de Blasio, the new mayor, was asked about the matter at a press conference  a few hours before the aborted trial was to begin. His Honor ducked the question, saying, “We want to respect every community in everything we do.” If New York’s new mayor is sincere about that sentiment, he can start by reining in the city’s out-of-control “human rights” bureaucracy.

Mark Hemingway is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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