Jacques: Civil rights director pays price for his own intolerance

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Agustin Arbulu found himself this summer on the other end of a sexual harassment investigation after he was accused of making comments that “objectified” women. 

The director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, who announced he’d take a leave of absence Tuesday, makes his living investigating reports of discrimination, so it’s hard to miss the irony.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, right,  addresses Michigan Civil Rights commissioners as Dr. Agustin V. Arbulu, left, director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, takes notes.

Arbulu got into trouble for several alleged comments, including telling a male co-worker, in reference to a woman at a meeting, to “check out her ass,” and later referring to his own daughter (who has vehemently defended her father) as “hot.” 

When the male colleague objected to Arbulu’s choice of words, Arbulu doubled down, saying he didn’t understand because he “didn’t like women,” referencing the staffer’s sexual orientation. 

Not surprisingly, in this era of #MeToo and zero tolerance for bad male behavior, many — including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — are calling for Arbulu’s head. 

More:Whitmer: Civil Rights director should resign or be fired

Others think Arbulu deserves some slack, in light of all the other work he’s done. 

His comments may be ill-advised, but I’d venture most of us — men and women alike — have said similar things at some point in our lives. 

Yet Arbulu, given his position, ought to be held to a higher standard for his conduct. More importantly, this is a standard Arbulu helped create. 

Under his leadership of the department, Arbulu — along with the Civil Rights Commission that hired him — has gone above and beyond established boundaries to enforce a politically correct code of conduct. 

More:Jacques: It's job of lawmakers to amend civil rights law

For example, last year the commission opted to start investigating discrimination claims based on sexual orientation and gender identity, even though the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act doesn’t yet include that language. 

Former Attorney General Bill Schuette warned the commission to stay in its lane and follow the law, but those investigations continued anyway. Now, Attorney General Dana Nessel has given the department a free pass by issuing guidance earlier this year, saying the Civil Rights Commission “is not bound by a Schuette-era opinion that said the LGBT community is not protected” under current law.

Nessel and Arbulu also joined forces in February when they said their respective departments would take a closer look at incidents of hate and bias. Arbulu said the Civil Rights Department would create a database to document incidents of hate and bias that didn’t rise to the level of a crime or civil infraction. 

I doubt Arbulu elected to add himself to the list. 

This kind of government tracking carries a real threat to free speech and civil liberties, and universities that have tried similar tactics are now finding themselves subject to federal lawsuits over First Amendment violations.

And last year, Arbulu decided to probe discrimination in K-12 public schools. The commission held several meetings around the state, including Detroit, and one of its goals was to investigate the threat charter and private schools pose for traditional public schools. That raised red flags for the school choice community. 

In an Aug. 12 letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, commission Chair Alma Wheeler Smith defended the group’s decision not to fire Arbulu, explaining the “commission elected to try a restorative justice discipline model.”

“In order to inform attitudes and behavior, the department utilizes education and training models to work with public and private bodies to mitigate institutional racism and sexism and systemic bias,” the letter continued. 

But this is the head of the Civil Rights Department we’re talking about. 

Arbulu probably feels all the backlash against him over a couple of dumb comments is unfair. Yet he has himself to blame for helping form such an unforgiving environment.