Professor brings court into the classroom

GW law professor John Banzhaf and his students have helped battle sexism, discrimination, the tobacco industry and D.C.’s rat problem through Banzhaf’s Legal Activism class, known as “Sue the Bastards” to the students.

The course aims to help students apply skills they learned in class to act on causes they feel strongly about.

One group of students from fall semester is suing driving schools in D.C. under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which states all driving schools must provide students who do not have use of their feet with hand-controlled cars. Currently no public driving school in the District offers hand controls, Banzhaf said.

Last semester graduate students Dimitry Kouretas and Payan Jassin linked a lack of proper garbage disposal with D.C.’s rat problem, and established a Web site at which people can report trash-code violations.

“We have had some success,” Kouretas said. “Some places have been fined up to $2,000, so they’ve started to clean up their act.”

Kouretas and Jassin, who have been featured on local TV and radio programs for their project, said Banzhaf’s class was a starting point for their success.

“The class is interesting because it takes students away from the library, where they usually are, and gets them to do something with what they are learning,” Kouretas said. “All the groups from the class have had some level of success.”

In the mid-1990s, Banzhaf’s class worked to get “ladies’ nights” banned from bars. The project originated with a group of three female students who felt the practice of offering women drink discounts and free admission in bars and clubs perpetuates the stereotype of a helpless woman and sets up women as “bait” for men, Banzhaf said.

“The bottom line is that gender discrimination, like race discrimination, is hard to eradicate because people are not obvious,” Banzhaf said. “But when you have a place that openly discriminates according to gender, then it needs to be put to an end.”

“Ladies’ nights” are now banned in half the states and pricing equalities are spreading, Banzhaf said.

Other students in the class fought to force dry cleaners and hair salons to charge women the same price as men.

Banzhaf helped produce a video segment that will soon be aired on NBC’s “Dateline” examining gender biases in home-repair businesses. The segment demonstrates the different level of service people receive when they display stereotypical gender traits by videotaping a man and a woman with the same home-repair problem, Banzhaf said.

Banzhaf also founded and leads the Action on Smoking and Health, a national non-profit legal and educational organization that fights for the rights of non-smokers.

ASH, the largest and oldest anti-smoking organization in the country, has been involved in many major anti-smoking cases, Banzhaf said. Actions by ASH have contributed to the bans on smoking in planes, buses and other public places, according to the ASH Web site.

ASH is working to ban smoking in all work places, and is helping a case in the Friendship Heights district of Maryland to ban smoking on sidewalks, Banzhaf said.

“As a lawyer I can litigate on whoever waves a check or I can litigate on things that I’m concerned about,” Banzhaf said.

Banzhaf started the organization in 1967 when he noticed the large number of cigarette ads on TV. He wrote out a petition to the FCC to air anti-smoking ads to counter the cigarette ads. The FCC responded by mandating one anti-smoking ad must air for every three cigarette ads, Banzhaf said.

Banzhaf said he did not think he would pursue a campaign against smoking because Philip Morris sponsored the law firm he worked for at the time. But when large organizations including the American Heart Association did not pick up his fight, he said he decided to leave the life of the “fat-cat lawyer” and start ASH.

Banzhaf said he hopes students will use their experiences in his class and remember them when they become lawyers.

“Hopefully they will remember the tools and techniques, and have the confidence to work on issues that concern them in their careers,” Banzhaf said.

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