Corp. Counsel withdraws First Amendment argument

DC Government Withdraws
First Amendment Argument
in Tyra Hunter Case

Statement by GLAA President Rick Rosendall
Friday, February 6, 1998

On Thursday morning, February 5, 1998, DC Corporation Counsel John Ferren informed me by telephone that he had instructed lawyers on his staff to file a second praecipe (an amendment) in Superior Court to withdraw an argument from the brief filed by the government in late December in Civil Action 96-1338, Margie Hunter v. District of Columbia, et al. The argument in question had been that bigoted remarks directed towards a gravely wounded Tyra Hunter by a DC Fire Department employee on August 7, 1995 "are proctected by the First Amendment." The brief had been signed by Assistant Corporation Counsel Steven J. Anderson, and Ferren had not seen the brief before it went out.

GLAA and other groups had maintained that the First Amendment was designed to protect the people from their government, not vice versa. We welcome this latest development in the case. Unfortunately, the case continues in court, and those seeking a measure of justice for Tyra Hunter (a transgendered African American who died later that night in 1995 in the emergency room at D.C. General Hospital) must continue to wait for a resolution or settlement of her mother's civil case against the District.

Judge Ferren's most recent decision makes it even more clear that his earlier action in amending the government's brief was not a sudden reversal in response to adverse publicity but a considered judgment based upon careful review of the government's brief, prompted by my inquiry on behalf of GLAA in the second week of January. That inquiry was preceded by a meeting between Ferren and GLAA members on December 1, 1997 — prior to the government's issuance of the offending brief in Hunter — in which we discussed our concerns about past assaults by the Office of the Corporation Counsel against the District of Columbia Human Rights Act of 1977. At the December 1 meeting, Ferren urged us to call him directly whenever such a concern arose; I did so the following month upon reviewing the goverment's brief in Hunter. We commend Judge Ferren for his responsiveness and integrity in withdrawing the arguments after we had brought them to his attention and after he had personally reviewed the brief.

As we have stated before, given the material facts that the District has conceded in this case, we think that the government should settle the case and stop wasting taxpayer money fighting it. Further, those facts show more clearly than ever the need for the Fire Department to implement the long-awaited sensitivity training for Fire Department personnel.

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