John Leo
Two odd and recent news stories got little attention in the mainstream press. A Pennsylvania woman, fired after a long record of obnoxious behavior, sued her employer in federal court and won a key ruling. The judge said the woman was indeed "belligerent" and "unprofessional." She wrote abrasive e-mail and sassed her superiors. But because she was suffering from depression, the judge said she was protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). So if a jury agrees with her at trial, her employer, Unisys Corp., will have to take her back and accommodate her somehow. The other story involved an 8-year-old Arkansas boy who was suspended from school for three days for pointing a breaded chicken finger at a teacher and saying "pow, pow, pow."

Both these stories went directly into my file folder marked "extension." This is where I stuff clippings about perfectly reasonable social or legal principles that are carried way too far, resulting in essentially insane policies. When the ADA was debated a decade ago, nobody suggested that it might one day be used to force employers to accept disruptive and insubordinate workers or sales people who curse the customers. Discussion focused on people with severe and mostly visible disabilities. Almost no one thought that backers of the ADA would push to include neurosis, drug habits, bad backs or high blood pressure. And when school boards passed zero-tolerance policies on weapons in schools, nobody predicted that offenders would include tots with water pistols, rubber knives, key chain ornaments and chicken fingers.

Quiet overextension of accepted principles has become a standard political tactic. It can produce a lot of social change all at once, often without the bother of consulting the electorate. Take the concept of sexual harassment. What began in 1986 with a Supreme Court ruling in a case that involved repeated sexual assaults by a woman's boss established a legal doctrine now used to go after school teasing by first-graders and chuckling at the water cooler over naughty jokes on "Seinfeld."

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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