When the history of the anti-P.C. backlash is written, there will be chapters reserved for the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Rush Limbaugh, Charles Murray, and, no doubt, D.C.’s own Center for Individual Rights (CIR).
With a motto of “bringing lawsuits for a better America” and a pile of cash from right-wing foundations, the nonprofit law center has spent the past six years pouncing on just about any public institution that attempts to discriminate in the name of political correctness.
CIR litigates along the fault lines where civil rights and civil liberties collide—where free speech bumps up against sexual harassment, and where affirmative action does battle with the freedom to hire whom you want. Their critics counter that CIR’s real goal is to protect the entitlements of a privileged few, but CIR’s President Michael P. McDonald and Executive Director Michael S. Greve say they are proud right-leaning libertarians. They believe that less government interference in every aspect of Americans’ lives—from their wallets to their bedrooms —results in greater freedom for everyone.
The center is trying to “beat back the nanny state,” Greve says. “We’re extremely skeptical of the government’s ability to intervene to promote civic justice and speech.”
CIR has made its name by purposefully taking on high-profile, precedent-setting cases. It has aimed its sights particularly at universities, and it has already won 15 suits involving higher education, including what may be the most celebrated church/state case in a generation. CIR represented Roger Rosenberger, a University of Virginia (UVA) student who published a campus Christian magazine called Wide Awake. UVA had denied Wide Awake funding on the grounds that supporting it would constitute state endorsement of Christianity. In June, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of CIR and Rosenberger, holding that not funding the magazine discriminates on the basis of religion.
Disillusioned with conservativism and liberalism, Greve and McDonald, both 38, founded CIR in 1989. Greve, who was raised as a social democrat in Germany, immigrated to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship in 1981 and earned a doctorate in government at Cornell University. A Washington native, McDonald attended Catholic University and graduated from George Washington University Law Center. (The pair is aided by a skeleton staff of two associate attorneys, Michael Rossman and Michael Troy, and a few law clerks—incidentally, being named “Michael” is not a prerequisite for working at the center.) CIR’s clients rarely pay any of their expenses. The center raises its $800,000 annual operating budget mainly from conservative groups like the Smith Richardson, Bradley, and Carthage Foundations, as well as from individual donors.
Greve and McDonald did not found the center with a concrete libertarian agenda. It started as a mainly conservative legal foundation, but the founders soon became “rather dissatisfied with the way the organizations on the conservative side were running things.” So they devised a “better way to skin the cat.”
CIR combines what McDonald and Greve see as the best of the right and left. They vigorously defend individual freedom of thought, expression, and action, but also discard what they don’t like about the conventional ideologies.
Greve and McDonald assert that both conservatives and liberals have failed on free speech, which is the CIR’s leading issue. Conservatives, they say, have allowed Big Brother’s hand to reach too far into the moral sphere. Meanwhile, Greve says, liberal organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have been overrun by special interests and as a result are “fudging an awful lot” on principle.
But CIR’s critics say that it’s hardly preaching consistent principles either. In part, that’s because exactly what liberties a libertarian embraces depend on the libertarian. When asked to comment on CIR, the Rev. Robert F. Drinan, a Georgetown University Law Center professor and an affirmative action expert, declined, writing: “I hesitate to take on the libertarians. I have never understood them and feel more bewildered every day at some of the positions that they take with regard to crucial problems.”
Libertarians insist that when it comes to integrating the workplace, a voluntary approach beats out government intervention every time.
“The bottom line is there’s no basis for anti-discrimination laws as they apply to the private sector,” says Roger Pilon, director of the Center for Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute, the leading libertarian think tank. But in the public sector, “anti-discrimination laws are essential because that sector belongs to all of us.”
Certain remedies like affirmative action may be necessary in the public sector, Pilon says, only if they are narrowly tailored to address a pattern of past discrimination. At the same time, he says, “There’s no way that affirmative action can emerge as a deeply satisfying remedy, because it involves treating people not as individuals but as a class, and discriminating against people who themselves may have been guilty of no discrimination.”
CIR takes this point further when it goes to court. CIR insists that affirmative action is, by definition, illegal discrimination. Consider its reverse-discrimination case against Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). In 1993, the center filed suit on behalf of a handful of male professors at VCU. The university had conducted a salary equity study that found male professors were paid more than female professors. In the wake of the study, the university gave raises only to women faculty members, granting pay hikes to 172 of 201 eligible women.
Greve observes, “Virginia Commonwealth University gave an all-female pay raise—despite maintaining it never discriminated.”
CIR is also challenging what it calls racial discrimination based on affirmative action. It is currently fighting to win admission for four white applicants to the University of Texas Law School. The students claim they were rejected from the school because about 15 percent of the space in each class are reserved for blacks and Hispanics. In August 1994, a federal judge ruled that the white students were discriminated against by the university, but awarded them only $1 in damages and the opportunity to reapply without paying the application fee. CIR, in an appeal, is asking that the white students be admitted promptly—and without reapplying.
CIR has also spearheaded the fight against sexual-harassment policies biased in favor of women. Greve contends that laws already protect women against “crass” forms of sexual harassment such as molestation. These statutes, he says, render the elaborate harassment codes being written by campuses and businesses unnecessary. Such codes, he says, are “a feminists’ crusade, which rigs the system in favor of women.”
CIR’s latest suit, he says, opposes such a “crusade.” The case involves James B. Maas, a Cornell University professor who was found guilty of sexually harassing former students under the school’s codes. Maas not only maintains he is innocent of the sexual harassment charges, but is suing Cornell for violating his civil rights during the internal hearing process. Among other things, he alleges that the details of the supposedly confidential process were leaked to the media by the complainants.
But left-wing critics contend that CIR’s legal arguments are just a smokescreen for a campaign to protect the status quo.
“White males have had affirmative action running for them for years. What do you call their admission to first-class schools where their fathers went?” asks Leon Shull, chair of the legislative committee of the Americans for Democratic Action, which has always supported affirmative action. “You only hear complaints about affirmative action when it helps women and minorities.”
While he believes that libertarians are “people of good will,” Shull says that they harbor a “naive belief that the market will be able to choose” what is best for society. “It doesn’t work out that way,” he says.
(Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU of the national capital area, acknowledges that CIR has done a lot of good work, especially when it comes to “protecting academic freedom and fighting this P.C. virus.” But Spitzer also contends that libertarians are “a little blind” if they think all problems will be solved by the free market and the private sector without any government intervention.)
As skeptics might have guessed, the majority of CIR’s clients are white and male, and the few exceptions are minorities or females who want to attack quotas. The center is representing a 14-year-old girl, an A-plus student at a Corpus Christi, Texas, school that has a 97 percent minority population. “Michelle Doe” is suing the National Science Foundation for denying her admission to science camp. Doe was granted an interview, but when she showed up, the review committee realized she was white and told her she was not eligible. CIR is also suing on behalf of a black student in California who claims she would have been admitted to the nonprofit Wright Institute had she gone through the general admissions process, rather than be pooled with other minorities.
Greve and McDonald believe the center has thrived because it has kept a specialized focus. CIR wants “uncompromising government neutrality” with respect to freedom of speech, civil rights, race, and sexual harassment.