Is DMN trying to intimidate gay couple into dropping their discrimination complaint?

Posted on 26 Apr 2011 at 4:34pm
Mark Reed-Walkup, left, and Dante Walkup

Looks like The Dallas Morning News is going to considerable lengths to defend its ban on same-sex wedding announcements.

Mark Reed-Walkup, who’s filed a discrimination complaint against the newspaper for refusing to publish his paid same-sex wedding ad, sent over a copy of the legal response he received via certified letter last week from the DMN’s attorneys, Jackson Walker LLP. (Download a copy of the the legal document here and the letter here.)

In the DMN’s response, or “Original Answer to Complainant Mark Reed-Walkup’s Original Complaint,” Paul Watler of Jackson Walker LLP argues that wedding announcements don’t qualify as a public accommodation under the city of Dallas’ ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. Watler also argues that Reed-Walkup and his husband, Dante Walkup, aren’t legally married in Texas, and that any effort by the city to prosecute The DMN would violate the newspaper’s First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of the press.

Reed-Walkup said he was shocked to receive the letter.

“My first reaction was, I thought we were getting sued,” Reed-Walkup said. “I thought it was very intimidating that we would receive a response from the law firm, and that they were not following the process set up by the Fair Housing Office.

“The maximum fine, worst-case scenario, if this did get prosecuted, is only $500,” Reed-Walkup said, adding that the newspaper likely has already spent more than that in attorney’s fees. “It’s not like a lawsuit where we’re trying to go after them to recover financially for the discrimination we feel we’ve experienced. It’s just trying to get them to the table. The whole spirit of the public accommodations law is to try to work it out between the two parties without getting attorneys involved.”

The Walkups initially filed their discrimination complaint against The DMN in November, after they made international news by getting married via Skype in a ceremony that was held in Dallas but officiated from Washington, D.C. But after the Skype wedding was declared invalid by a D.C. court, the Walkups traveled to the nation’s capital to re-tie the knot, before re-filing their complaint against The DMN in late December.

Reed-Walkup is a board member for the national LGBT direct action group GetEQUAL, and the couple owns Wiedamark Lighting on Oak Lawn Avenue.

Since the early 2000s, the DMN has published same-sex union announcements in a separate section that’s currently called Commitments, but refuses to publish them under Weddings alongside heterosexual couples.

Reed-Walkup alleges that the policy violates the city’s ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodations.

Before receiving the letter from the DMN’s attorneys, Reed-Walkup said the couple met last Monday with an investigator from the Fair Housing Office, which processes complaints under the ordinance. The investigator told the couple that the next step would be to attempt conciliation between the parties.

“Then, boom, we get the registered letter on Thursday,” Reed-Walkup said. “I personally think they’re fighting it so hard, because I think they are down to their core group of very conservative readers and subscribers. Times are tough for all print media, and nobody can afford to lose current subscribers. … However, as we move into new media, I think it’s important that they understand that the younger, high-tech population would not be supportive of their current position.”

Reed-Walkup pointed to the results of an online poll posted by the local Fox affiliate, in which 80 percent of 10,000 respondents said they believe the newspaper should publish same-sex  unions under Weddings. Meanwhile, a Change.org petition calling for The DMN to change its policy has almost 14,000 signatures.

Reed-Walkup’s complaint has also called attention to the city’s implementation of the nondiscrimination ordinance. Since the ordinance passed in 2002, there have been 53 complaints filed, but none has ever been prosecuted by the city.

“I’d like to see at least one prosecuted, and I think we have a very strong case that we’ve been discriminated against based on our sexual orientation,” Reed-Walkup said, adding that the couple won’t be deterred by the letter from the DMN’s attorneys.

“We’re moving ahead,” he said. “It’s going to be interesting to watch this next phase, because we’re very clear on what we want and it’ll be interesting to see how they react to that. From the tone of that legalistic letter, they’re not in the mood to conciliate anything.”

Under the ordinance, if the DMN refuses to change its policy or participate in conciliation, the case will be turned over to the City Attorney’s Office for a decision about whether to prosecute.

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