A top Missouri lawmaker is demanding the University of Missouri System back off its support of legislation that she says “seeks to gut civil rights protections” in the state.
In a letter sent late Monday afternoon to interim university system President Mike Middleton, House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty wrote that “given the protests (in 2015) that focused national attention on the university’s spotty history on racial issues, the choice to support measures to cripple legal protections against discrimination is both puzzling and disheartening.”
On Wednesday, the university in a statement said it provides individuals who believe they have been discriminated against “access to robust due process.”
Beatty, a Democrat from Kansas City, was referring to testimony on Feb. 13 by UM System lobbyist Marty Oetting to the House Special Committee on Litigation Reform. Oetting was addressing university support for three pieces of legislation that change the standards that determine whether a person has been discriminated against in employment, housing or public accommodation.
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The legislation also would grant state governments, including public colleges and universities, protection against punitive damage awards in discrimination lawsuits.
“All three would make it more difficult to bring suit for discrimination under the Missouri Human Rights Act,” said Marc Powers, Beatty’s chief of staff.
Beatty’s letter said that “Oetting’s testimony didn’t so much call in question the university system’s commitment to equal treatment for all as loudly declare that no such commitment exists.”
She also said she respectfully requests that the university system “not only retract its support for the bills in question but state its opposition to them.”
Powers said Wednesday afternoon that Beatty’s office had not yet received a response to the letter.
But in a statement sent to The Star on Wednesday afternoon, Middleton said the university “specifically and narrowly testified recently in favor of the punitive damages portion of the legislation.”
Middleton’s statement said the university favors the portion of the legislation that would exempt the state and its political subdivisions from punitive damages in discrimination lawsuits.
“We are merely seeking to clarify that public higher education institutions also will be included in this exemption,” Middleton said.
Oetting’s testimony last week preceded an attempt by Missouri NAACP President Nimrod Chapel to speak during the same public hearing, in opposition to the proposed legislation.
Chapel said he had spoken only 109 seconds before being silenced by the committee chairman, Rep. Bill Lant, a Pineville Republican. When Chapel continued to speak against changes to the legislation, calling it an example of “Jim Crow,” his mic was shut off.
On Wednesday, Chapel praised Beatty after learning about her letter to the university.
“She represents the kind of leadership that we need,” Chapel said.
Like Beatty, Chapel referred to the unrest on the MU campus in Columbia in November 2015 when the predominately black student group Concerned Student 1950 led protests against racial discrimination and oppression on the campus.
He said university support of the legislation “reduces what it is required to do to respond to those same students who complained. It endorses discriminatory practice in the state of Missouri.”
Middleton defended the way the university responds to complaints of discrimination.
“I am proud of the effective policies having to do with unlawful discriminatory practices that we have put in place at the University of Missouri System. Many of these policies go beyond the protections currently afforded by state law.”