Trump-backed GOP Senate nominee Jason Lewis mocked elementary school sexual harassment in 1999
Posted September 18, 2020 12:01 p.m. EDT
CNN — Jason Lewis, a former GOP congressman running for a US Senate seat in Minnesota, dismissed in a 1999 television show sexual harassment and assault in K-12 schools as being insignificant cases of children teasing each other and argued against a school's legal responsibility to limit harassment between students.
Lewis made the comments on "Face to Face," a public affairs television program he co-hosted in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Minnesota, in response to what was then a recent Supreme Court case, Davis v. Monroe County School Board.
At the center of Davis v. Monroe was a fifth-grade girl in Georgia who experienced months of sexual harassment from a male classmate, in which the classmate allegedly "would sexually taunt her by trying to grab at her breasts, rub against her in the hallways, or whisper that he wanted to 'get in bed' with her," according to reporting from The Washington Post. The girl's mother stated that she tried for months to get the school to stop the boy, but that she was ignored.
CNN's KFile also reviewed other episodes of Face to Face from this time period in which Lewis also argued against the Sixth Amendment's right to legal counsel, which he said was "already stretched" and that court-appointed attorneys went beyond the scope of the Sixth Amendment.
These newly unearthed comments about the harassment lawsuit are in line with Lewis' history of deriding women who experience sexual assault and sexual harassment. CNN's KFile previously reported Lewis mocked women who were traumatized by unwanted sexual advances and that he viewed sexual harassment law as an assault on First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, calling it both "ridiculous" and "unconstitutional," in 2011 episodes of his former radio show.
The former GOP congressman, who was endorsed by President Donald Trump last year in the primary, faces a tough election battle against incumbent Democratic Sen. Tina Smith for the Minnesota seat. Winning Minnesota has long been a goal for Republicans and Trump, who plans to visit Minnesota on Friday and lost the state by fewer than 45,000 votes in 2016. His campaign is trying to add it to the Republican column this year but polling shows Trump trailing in the state by high single digits, and current polling for this Senate battle shows Lewis trailing Smith by high single digits.
In response to a comment request from CNN, Christine Snell, Lewis' communications director, criticized CNN and KFile, but did not respond to the substance of Lewis' comments.
In the June 1999 episode of "Face to Face" discussing the case, Lewis frequently bemoaned the court's ruling, which found that a school can be sued by a student, and forced to pay damages, if it failed to stop sexual harassment committed by other students.
Lewis also dismissed allegations of sexual harassment in schools as innocent situations of "Billy" chasing "Susie," two fictional stand-ins for elementary school boys and girls.
"This is such a boon to lawyers everywhere, they can sue school districts for not preventing Billy from teasing Susie," Lewis said.
Lewis made the argument that the ruling endorsed superfluous lawsuits, despite the fact that the Supreme Court explicitly said in its ruling that harassment had to be so "severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive" as to make it impossible for students to receive the benefits of a public education, and that "It is not enough to show... that a student has been 'teased' or 'called offensive names."
Lewis brought up the hypothetical examples of the nonexistent Billy and Susie five times in the half-hour episode to downplay sexual harassment in schools, and said that pursuing hypothetical sexual harassment cases distracted schools from preventing violence.
"While school districts are making certain that say, you know, romantic notes aren't exchanged, or Billy isn't harassing Susie, or all these things -- that takes time," Lewis said. "And some of us think that schools ought to be focused on violence perhaps in their hallways, instead of what some people deem to be sexual harassment."
Lewis also complained about the increase in sexual harassment lawsuits, though not because he thought sexual harassment was rampant, but rather because he thought many were frivolous.
"Sexual harassment litigation has exploded in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, according to the EEOC, we've gone from 6,127 cases in 1990—to 14,420, just by 1994—we doubled in less than five years," Lewis said to Wright Walling, an attorney and one of the show's guests that episode
"You're making an assumption that more lawsuits are a bad thing, and -- " Walling said.
"Yes, absolutely," Lewis interrupted.
"The fact of the matter is that when you're protecting the rights of, in this case, a 5th grader, of children, that some of these who should be looked at, and if that takes going to court to make the school districts, in fact, pay attention to what they should be doing to protect our children, then I don't think—" said Walling.
"I agree with Judge Hand," Lewis interrupted again, citing 20th century federal judge Learned Hand. "He said that more lawsuits were a bad thing and he was right then as he is today."
Right to counsel
In an April 2001 episode of "Face to Face," Lewis weighed in on a recent Supreme Court ruling, Texas v. Cobb, on the Sixth Amendment, which states that in all criminal prosecutions, the "accused" shall "have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense." Lewis argued that the right to a court appointed attorney went beyond the initial intent of the Sixth Amendment.
The court held in Texas v. Cobb that the Sixth Amendment's right to counsel is "offense-specific" and that a suspect in a criminal investigation may not have an attorney present for questioning in regards to a related crime if he already had access to a lawyer.
Lewis argued that the Sixth Amendment's right to an attorney "has been tortured a bit over the years. If you really wanna look at the strict construction of the amendment, it says people have the right to counsel."
Lewis added, "Somehow, we also have not only the right to counsel, we have the right for somebody else to pay for it and the right for it to be ever-present, omnipresent. I'm not saying [Texas v. Cobb's] a good ruling. I'm just saying that we have already stretched the amendment."