Clint Eastwood and ‘opportunism’

Published: January 28, 2005
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“I think it’s opportunism.”

Clint Eastwood, talking to the Los Angeles Times’s Chris Lee, was referring to the National Spinal Cord Injury Association’s statement that his Million Dollar Baby “is saying ‘death is better than Disability.’ ” We’d provide a link to Lee’s story, but it’s in the current — 1/28/05 — L. A. Times Calendar section and that’s available online only to subscribers. We can’t access it.

So let’s talk about opportunism for a minute. Mr. Eastwood’s opportunism, that is.

In the spring of 2000 Eastwood joined forces with Rep. Mark Foley (R. FL) to support the ADA Notification Act, a bill that would require disabled people to wait yet another 90 days, requiring them to ask a business, nicely, to please make their premises accessible, before suing them under the Americans with Disabilities Act for their lack of access. Since 1992, the federal law has required access. But almost no small businesses have bothered to obey the law.

Yet, according to Eastwood in his media blitz during the spring of 2000, businesses were being picked on by “unscrupulous” lawyers out to make a fast buck.

Eastwood appeared on the talk shows Hardball and Crossfire; he was covered in a Fox News Special. The National Journal quoted him. Columnists covered his comments. Newsweek used the “Mercedes” quote on its “Perspectives” page (“What happens is these lawyers, they come along and they end up driving off in a big Mercedes,” Eastwood told reporters, “and the disabled person ends up driving off in a wheelchair.”),

The seasoned Hollywood actor had his script and he stuck to it: He wasn’t against disabled people. He wanted to help disabled people, who were being preyed on by moneygrubbing lawyers. The law was the problem; had been all along. The law needed to be fixed.

“Dirty Harry wants revenge, Washington style,” said The Wall Street Journal. (We’d link to that story but it’s not available online either. The WSJ article, by Jim Vandehei, ran May 9, 2000.)

Eastwood said he’d been slapped with a lawsuit he’d never seen coming, over access violations at his Mission Ranch resort.

He testified before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution on May 18, 2000. Lawyers, he said, were “perverting the law by going around and filing these broadside, sand-bagging type suits where they hit you broadside from nowhere, with absolutely no warning.

“I was hit by one in an old hotel I was trying to restore that dates back to the 1800’s, and it was just on an allegation that somebody was there, and a year earlier they had been denied access. They waited a whole year to file this suit,” he told the committee. (View QuickTime Clip – 440K)

Later, though, in the hearing, Subcommittee members heard this from ADA consultant Fred Shotz:

“Mr. Eastwood said that it was a year from when the person visited his ranch or his hotel before he got sued. He did not mention to you that he got a letter after 3 months about the violations. That is called ‘notice,’ I believe. He did not tell you about the certified letter that was sent to him that he refused to sign for and got returned to the plaintiff’s attorney.” (View QuickTime Clip – 572K)

A little later in hearing, Eastwood said, “Who in America gives these lawyers the right to be the self-appointed vigilantes to enforce the law?” (View QuickTime Clip – 220K )

The 101st Congress gave lawyers this right. Title 3 of the Americans with Disabilities Act can be enforced only by bringing a lawsuit (See Sec. 308 of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act).

People seem to want to believe that businesses will obey the law voluntarily, without being sued. It’s a nice idea. Unfortunately, it seems to be a fantasy as well.

Catherine Hess’s story, Barrier to entry: Retailers are slow to accommodate patrons with disabilities, from the Jan. 26, 2005 San Francisco Bay Guardian, is the latest of many stories to report that this isn’t the case. “Small businesses appear unwilling to act in the absence of a ‘hammer’ such as litigation or fines,” Herb Levine of the Independent Living Resource Center told Hess. “We came to these conclusions very reluctantly,” Levine told her. “Litigation results in more access than our attempt to collaborate.” (READ STORY).

Ragged Edge also did a story on this issue. Read The Lawsuit Dilemma.

Clint Eastwood may say that disabled people objecting to his movie are being “opportunistic.” But the fight against access and against the Disabilities Act is real, and ongoing. And Clint Eastwood has been a celebrity at the forefront of efforts to scale back the law’s power.

If Eastwood wants us to believe he seriously has no “vendetta against disabled people” (as it put it to Chris Lee), then let him publicly and forcefully urge the small businesses along California’s Central Coast to obey the federal — and the state — requirements for full access for people with disabilities — and for them to obey the law without being sued first.

The first person to find — and send us — a news story in a major media outlet that reports on Clint Eastwood calling on businesses to comply fully with federal and state access laws will win a big prize from Ragged Edge Online.

Thanks to CasaGlozier Productions for film editing.

Read Mary Johnson’s Killing Us Kindly

Mary Johnson edits Ragged Edge. Her latest book is Make Them Go Away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve and The Case Against Disability Rights.

by Mary Johnson