Two days after announcing that it might file court papers supporting Paula Corbin Jones in her sexual harassment suit against President Clinton, the National Organization for Women backed off Wednesday, saying that her case is murky and that she has aligned herself with "disreputable right-wing organizations and individuals."
NOW president Patricia Ireland said that Jones' allegations--recently dismissed by a federal judge in Arkansas--are "so highly politically charged" as to make her claims "an imperfect case, at best, to use as a test case to advance important legal principles."
NOW's decision threatens to rekindle criticism that it is being guided by partisan politics rather than the substance of allegations against Clinton, a strong supporter of women's rights issues. Critics of NOW and some other women's advocacy groups have called the organizations hypocritical for rallying to support Anita Faye Hill when she directed sexual harassment charges at conservative Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991, yet remaining largely silent since Jones filed her case against Clinton in 1994.
Jones had charged that in 1991 Clinton--then governor of Arkansas--made a crude sexual advance toward her in a Little Rock, Ark., hotel room. But the civil lawsuit was dismissed April 1, when U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright ruled that evidence that Jones' employment status in a state government job was affected by the alleged incident was lacking.
Ireland had said earlier this week that NOW would survey its members to determine whether to file a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Jones' appeal of Wright's decision. On Wednesday, Ireland said that her national board and individual chapters "overwhelmingly" voiced sentiment that the Jones-Clinton case could "make bad law."
Ireland made it clear that she and her group are skeptical of the intentions of some of those supporting Jones in her legal bid.
"Paula Jones has surrounded herself with a phalanx of politically motivated lawyers and spokespeople who are opponents of the women's rights movement," Ireland said. "Whether she is part of them or just a pawn, we may never know. But, if this were a strong case that advanced the interests of working women, we'd be there."
At the same time, Ireland called on Clinton and Republican congressional leaders "to make clear that sexual misconduct does not have to rise to the level of criminal rape or assault to violate . . . the prohibition against hostile environment harassment."
She said that "no boss should get away with making unwelcome sexual advances," even when no tangible harm occurs to her job.
John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, which is paying for Jones' legal expenses, said he was disappointed by Ireland's statements. "It is disheartening to see that NOW is willing to sacrifice women's rights to be safe from sexual predators in the workplace upon the altar of their own political agenda," Whitehead said.