The Supreme Court that has recently issued its anti-harassment decision sits in the middle of a city under siege. Justices who have pronounced the nation’s employers liable for “permitting a hostile environment” to exist in the workplace cannot walk within two blocks of the Supreme Court building without being confronted with the most hostile of environments. Visitors to the nation’s capital plan their monument tours around the schedules of street hustlers, muggers, and murderers who own the streets after sunset, impelling Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly to request help from the National Guard. Instead of grappling with the mayhem outside, Congress and the nation’s criminal justice system have turned their attentions to something far more manageable—workplace harassment and speech control.

“This decision is only a blow to Yahoos,” said Burke Stinson, an AT&T spokesman. Mr. Stinson and other Fortune 500 guys who have spent big bucks on shiny new sexual harassment brochures and seminars are not worried. With their fleet of expensive in-house lawyers, they are confident of their ability to negotiate sticky situations. But the Yahoos, many of whom are small business owners and their employees, are about to get it big-time. These business owners, many of whom you might say are works-in-progress, or ripe plums waiting to be picked, are now subject to fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars for “permitting a hostile environment” to exist in their companies.

A Yahoo, says the American Heritage Dictionary, is “a crude or brutish person, derived from a race representing humanity at large in Gulliver’s Travels.” The Yahoos I know are the hardworking guys with rough edges who are running the auto body and pizza shops. Though they sometimes look like people from Deliverance, they create a sizable chunk of the new jobs in America. They have not had their attitudes adjusted and filtered through the paradigms of Yale, and while they do not yet know it, their personalities have now been criminalized. They are considered by the politically correct and their lawyers to be racist, sexist, homophobes. God help them if they have worked hard, have played by the rules as they understand them, and own a home and business. Yahoos have never heard of the “Hostile Halls” study, a report on sexual harassment in schools. While Senator Kennedy busies himself investigating politically correct minutia like the pig-tail pulling and depantsing that is said to be going on in kindergartens throughout America, businesses are being demoralized and destroyed by armed robbers who come through the back door and lawyers who come through the front.

The employees that the Yahoos hire are a wild and woolly breed themselves. Dean, a chef and manager of a restaurant kitchen on auto-body row, used to laugh wildly as he chased the waitresses with a three-foot-long filet mignon hidden under his apron. The restaurant owner who was now financially responsible for Dean’s antics became nervous when he heard tales of how Dean, working alone on the nightshift, hid under tables and grabbed the ankles of the waitress he wanted to date. Scared out of her wits, did she sue? No, but she could have. Instead, she married him. The waitress, a street-smart woman who had flashing eyes and walked with a swagger, was not easily buffaloed by Yahoos.

Charles Hardy, president of Forklift Systems, Inc., in Nashville, Tennessee, is the latest Yahoo to be captured. “You’re a woman, what do you know?” Hardy once said to his female manager. Another time he called her “a dumb-ass woman,” and eventually, probably to his everlasting amazement, he was dragged before the Supreme Court of the United States for creating a hostile work environment. Justice Clarence Thomas did not offer a dissenting opinion, even though he, too, had been dragged through the mud for ten-year-old allegations concerning pornographic movies and a pubic hair on his Coke can.

Crime and violence are rife in the streets, but if there is anything askew in the workplace, an inappropriate pattern of jokes, belligerent sexist comments, too many requests for dates, the government wants to take action and levy the appropriate fines. Senator Kennedy has promised to have the caps removed from these fines, which now range to $300,000 per incident, to provide even bigger jackpots for women who show that they have worked in an abusive environment.

In a recent New Republic article, “Defining Deviancy Up,” Charles Krauthammer tells of a visit he had from the F.B.I. During a routine background check on a former coworker, Krauthammer was asked if the man whom he had worked beside for two years had ever told any sexist or racist jokes or otherwise shown signs of hidden prejudice. It was then that Krauthammer realized that “insensitive speech had achieved official status as a thought crime.”

Thought crimes have become all too prevalent at universities, too. A University of Michigan student who was outlandish enough to state in class that he thought homosexuality is an illness was forced to attend a formal university hearing in a room where free thought and free speech were once held in high regard and was charged with harassment based on sexual orientation. In the not-too-distant past it was assumed that the answer to erroneous or offensive speech was more speech, especially in our institutions of higher learning. If a fundamentalist Christian student believes that homosexuality is an illness, should his opinion not be freely stated and freely refuted? When did we suspend the rights of presumed racists, sexists, and homophobes? To suppress speech insures that change at the attitudinal level will not occur, that prejudices will go underground, hidden and unchallenged.

Though profound censorship issues underlie hate speech and hostile environment laws, the recent Supreme Court harassment ruling came down fast and unanimous and without apparent controversy. “It is as simple as requiring everyone on the job to treat everyone with decency and respect,” editorialized the Washington Post. How incredibly simple. Why didn’t we think of this before? If such a law is good for the workplace, why could it not be passed for the whole nation, requiring everyone to treat each other with decency and respect at all times of the day or night? We all could have the fundamental right, as Carol Moseley-Braun argued in the Senate, to an environment free from insult. If such a law were passed, we could eliminate divorce and crime in the streets. We could have peace at home and abroad. In reality, Congress could never enact a freedom-from-a-hostile-environment law for the nation at large because the enforcement of such a law would entail the establishment of a police state. Distaste for anything resembling a police state partially explains the impotence of the criminal justice system in the face of the near-anarchy that is occurring on our nation’s streets. If hostile environment laws are so abhorrent for the nation at large, why do we readily embrace them for the workplace?

Until recently, workplace cultures evolved freely from within. The type of business and the values and personalities of the owners, managers, and employees determined the social relations that occurred. Some businesses permitted interoffice dating, some did not. Bars and restaurants did not require the same level of decorum as, say, a law office or a medical facility. Temperamental immigrant chefs could bellow and swear, and whoever could tolerate them would stay.

Now it is different. Social interactions, once the province of Miss Manners, can easily become a federal case. Workplace behavior standards are to be enforced from the outside, with the boss as the designated censor. As Wayne state law professor Kingsly Brown points out, “You’ve got employers censoring workers’ speech out of fear of being held liable by the government. It is still censorship, even if the mechanism is a civil action by private parties.”

Charles Krauthammer asks in the New Republic:

How to cope with the explosion of real deviancy? One way is denial. . . . Another strategy is distraction: defining deviancy up creates brand new deviancies that we can now go off and fight that distracts us from real deviancy and gives us the feeling that, despite the murder and mayhem and madness around us, we are really preserving and policing our norms. . . . Defining deviancy up creates a whole new universe of behaviors to police, and—a bonus—a higher class of offender. More malleable, too: the guilt-ridden bourgeois, the vulnerable college student is a far easier object of social control than the hardened criminal or the raving lunatic.

Our government has done to employers what sexual harassers do to women—turn their workplace into a hostile environment. The litigious minefield that the boss must walk can seem as fraught with danger as the streets outside. Outside, the criminals run the show. Inside the workplace, and inside the manager’s head, the litigious kooks are in charge. He who offends the most dignified and prudish among us can lose his job, or his business. He who is politically incorrect has lost his right to free speech. The prim elite have taken control.

“What I’m seeing lately is that companies are overreacting,” says Ellen Wagner, attorney and author, in Fortune magazine: “Accusers are believed on the basis of very little evidence or none at all. And the ultimate punishment, termination, is a first resort rather than a last one.” “As for men,” says Anne B. Fisher in Fortune, “the majority of whom wouldn’t dream of harassing anybody, they are terrified of being falsely accused.”

Employers need also be wary of the flip side of the coin, being sued for wrongful discharge if they fire someone who is innocent of alleged harassment. In contradiction to AT&T’s spokesman, who implied that only Yahoos are worried. Investor’s Business Daily reports that in the current sexual harassment minefield both male and female managers are becoming “confused and skittish.” Nine out of ten Fortune 500 companies report that they have been sued for harassment, at an “average cost of $6.7 million per year to a large employer.”

Allowing the government to micromanage verbal behavior between men and women in the workplace gives it enormous power, generating widespread, stifling effects of major proportion due to the sheer numbers of people the laws effect. To regulate speech between women and men at work is not the same as monitoring the speech of a tiny hate cult like the skinheads. We have empowered the government to regulate the speech of most of the people in America for half of their waking hours.

A man coming out of a bad marriage may express anger and bitterness to a coworker friend. Should his emotional venting and excessive generalizing about women be considered a prejudice against women, an appropriate reason for the F.B.I. or other thought police to derail his career? Women and blacks and what happens to them are among the major issues affecting our culture. We simply cannot squelch dialogue at this point, putting a permanent gag rule on doubts, fears, anger, questions, or stupid statements regarding blacks or women. Backlash and arrested development will be the inevitable results of such social protectionism. Is it ever possible for white Americans to express questions or anger about the epidemic of black crime, particularly if they have been personally victimized by it, and not be presumed a racist? One can only wonder how much damage has been done by the muzzling of free discussion about the collapse of the black family and related issues over the last 50 years. As David Boldt, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, said, “I have this vision of America, with all 250 million of us standing up to our chins in sewage and everyone’s saying, ‘Don’t make waves!'”

What should a free society that has always celebrated diversity do with outspoken employers like Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, Don Rickles, Andy Rooney, Marge Schott, Spike Lee, Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, lesbian bookstore owners, Whoopi Goldberg, Hooters Restaurant, Jimmy the Greek, or feminist bar owners? Under current law, could a macho rebel like Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses feel safe hiring a woman with the delicate demeanor of, say, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg? Could people like them work together without one or the other being financially or emotionally damaged? Perhaps a person like her would feel unnerved and offended by a person as rude and crude as him. Perhaps he would feel unbearably tense and claustrophobic in the presence of someone as prim and dignified as she. In the past, we have always negotiated such interactions as free-wheeling adults without the suffocating threat of a personal injury attorney breathing down our necks. We have now become a nation of eggshell-walkers.

And what about women and blacks, who are the primary intended beneficiaries of anti-harassment laws—what effect do these laws have on them? Former President of the National Organization for Women, Karen DeCrow, said recently in USA Today: “I have begun to worry about this younger generation of feminists. The New Puritanism is frightening. What we had in mind 25 years ago was not a New Puritanism, but freeing women from being eternal children.” The image and legal status of women as perpetual victims who need special protection from offensive speech will be a hindrance to the hiring and advancement of women. Men who lave never before had a reason to discriminate against women now have one—the fear of being fired, falsely accused, or sued. For every woman who wins a personal injury jackpot, there will be thousands who will not be hired or promoted due to employers who are paranoid about lawsuits or accusations. How many employers will quietly decide against hiring a woman to send on the road with the company’s best and most aggressive salesman? How many bar owners or construction managers, faced with a female applicant, will feel secure that their work environment can be guaranteed free of sexually offensive speech? Those who may have previously been motivated to hire women may look at current punitive damage penalties and quietly decide that hiring a woman is not worth the risk.

Women would become stronger and less segregated from the male club if they would develop the assertiveness skills to outwit, outcharm, outmaneuver, and outwise-crack workplace harassers. Ideally, a sexist boss or coworker can be circumvented or conquered like any other workplace obstacle, increasing a woman’s self-esteem and empowerment. If such is not the case, and a hostile workplace environment becomes insurmountable, workers should have access to outside counselors with whom the involved parties could be required to resolve their conflicts. The company could be required to pay for counseling or mediation, but such payments would be far less threatening to the employer and more productive than punitive damage awards. Conflict resolution, rather than punishment, should be the primary focus of such mediation. The lottery-size incentives to sue a boss would disappear if complaints did not result in huge payoffs. With the continuing decline of labor unions, workers in businesses large and small could benefit from a professional conflict resolution process that would not be limited to racial, sexual, or religious victims but would be available to anyone involved in serious workplace disputes. Refusal to cooperate could result in the employer receiving an escalating series of fines, but these financial penalties would come at the end of the process, not as the first volley.

There is faulty logic and basic unfairness in laws that protect only particular groups from hostile environment and speech crime laws. A society that makes Polish and dumb-blond jokes an actionable offense should not fall off its chair when lawyers, exercising flawless logic, claim that hatred and prejudice have grown against them to the degree that they, too, are now victims. Harvey Saferstein, president of the California Bar and the greatest living example of chutzpah run amok, has proposed that lawyer-bashing be designated a hate crime. Yes, all of the theater-goers who cheered wildly when the Jurassic Park dinosaur ate the lawyer could be charged with hate speech. Shakespeare could be purged from the schools for advocating that we kill all the lawyers.

In a nation where it sometimes seems that lawsuits are one of our few growth industries, it is dismaying to see the Supreme Court treat the nations’ employers with (to borrow a legal phrase) such callous disregard. It is disappointing to see that a law that threatens freedom of expression is so quickly given unanimous approval by the Supreme Court. Judge Scalia writes, “As a practical matter, today’s holding (on the sexual harassment case of Forklift Systems) lets virtually unguided juries decide whether sex-related conduct engaged in by (or permitted by) an employer is egregious enough to warrant an award of damages.”

Leaving such complex issues in the hands of “unguided juries” who will decide guilt or innocence is alarming only to those who must pick up the tab. Juries will not receive a definition of what constitutes a hostile environment because the Justices have not devised one. The Supreme Court will be responsible for nothing so much as a definition of the crime for which it so cavalierly punishes the nation’s employers.

Congress, too, has limited its responsibility, exempting itself from the punitive damage penalties it has legislated for the private sector. If a congressman “permits a hostile environment” to exist, no one will confiscate his house.

The 1991 Civil Rights Law, which for the first time allows punitive damages for permitting a hostile work environment, is too vague and open-ended, too ambiguous, too fluid, and too punitive. It will have a chilling effect on creativity, free speech, and the advancement of women in the workplace. It will benefit no one except personal injury attorneys and a few jackpot winners.