STERN: Council Defies DC Law
Published: Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 03:09
In the District of Columbia, targeting students is against the law. Apparently, no one told that to the city council.
College upperclassmen across the District who have cars innocently assume that obtaining an out-of-state permit is a simple process. Such “reciprocity permits” are, after all, available to the vast majority of D.C. residents.
Students who plan on doing this will run into a problem — their permit request will be denied. It’s not because of what or how they drive but because of whom they are: students.
In any other city, students would be left to throw up their hands in frustration at yet another indignity arising from hostile town-gown relations. Luckily for D.C. students, our city has a special protection against this kind of bullying.
In the District’s sweeping Human Rights Act, Washingtonians are given this guarantee: “Every individual shall have an equal opportunity to participate fully in the economic, cultural and intellectual life of the District and to have an equal opportunity to participate in all aspects of life, including, but not limited to ... places of public accommodation, resort or amusement ... and in housing and commercial space accommodations.”
“Every individual” “equal opportunity,” “all aspects of life” — the text of this law is not ambiguous. Targeting a class of people such as students and prohibiting them from engaging in a basic aspect of modern life — car use and ownership — cannot be countenanced by this broad and generous law. And by singling out student-heavy neighborhoods on which to inflict this burden, the government has revealed the true target of its discrimination.
“I do not view this legislation as targeting students,” D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans of Ward 2 said via email when I asked him about this issue.
I then asked whether he thought it ran afoul of the D.C. Human Rights Act. He did not respond.
“There has to be some kind of balance struck,” echoed Jonathan Willingham, chief of staff for Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh. Cheh cosponsored the Residential Parking Protection Act of 2012, which restricted student car ownership near American University.
“Why should [students who aren’t permanent residents OF D.C.] have equal footing with those who are?” Willingham told me. “Why is it wrong for the District to favor those who live here?”
So the District is, in fact, favoring “those who live here” — such as non-students?
“The only people it targets,” Willingham explained, “are people who choose not to live in the District. Residents deserve the parking spots more.”
Residents? Like full-time students who have chosen to spend the duration of their academic careers in the District? Apparently not. When the city council and its spokespeople discuss “residents,” they don’t mean students. To them, we don’t count. We don’t deserve what everybody else has. We don’t get an “equal opportunity to participate in all aspects of life,” as the law requires. All we get is another hurdle to jump, another layer of red tape through which to cut.
The council and its spokespeople, of course, claim these laws don’t target students, just student-heavy neighborhoods. The fact that students are disproportionately affected by laws directed exclusively at student neighborhoods is, some would claim, a coincidence. Intrigued by this line of defense, I looked into the committee report for the Residential Parking Protection Act of 2012 and found this “statement of purpose and effect”: “To eliminate reciprocity for full-time students with out-of-state registration in certain neighborhoods.”
And a non-student in a non-student neighborhood? I suppose he just deserves a few more rights than we do.
It’s unsurprising that students are subjected to this legal burden. A common theme in town-gown relations in the District is a perpetual devaluation of students’ contributions to our city. My classmates and I are frequently portrayed as interlopers looking to sponge off their hardworking neighbors’ tax dollars. But we are more than that; we are a vital part of the community that makes our nation’s capital so amazing.
And, thanks to the D.C. Human Rights Act, we can fight back.
In letter and intent, the law here is clear. The city council cannot single out a group of people and deny us equal opportunities. No student may be denied a reciprocity permit because he is somehow less worthy of one; the law allows no bias against a certain class of citizens. Students must demand respect as full-fledged residents. We can start by filing a claim with the Office of Human Rights. If the city council is truly unconcerned that these laws target students, let them prove their position on record and in court.
After all, the council may be against us, but the law is on our side.
Mark Joseph Stern is a senior in the College. LETTERS OF THE LAW appears every other Tuesday.