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The Colorado Civil Rights Division has a double standard for ladies' nights -- and newspapers

I am being held hostage by Steve Horner.

And the state helped write the ransom note.

I first met Horner two years ago, when he was sending haranguing notes and leaving endless voice-mail messages about how I, and this newspaper, "have been totally insensitive to the needs of this egalitarian society," not to mention aiding and abetting criminal actions, and that, just as he might tackle a burglar he saw breaking the law, he might "tackle a bad girl," too.

Instead, the bad girl bought him a beer and listened while Horner expounded, at stultifying length, on the evils of — what else? Ladies' nights. Horner was a relative newcomer to Denver at the time, but he was not new to this cause and had already filed a complaint with the Colorado Division of Civil Rights regarding a ladies' night at a local club. And, of course, already irritated bureaucrats around town with his haranguing notes and endless voice-mail messages.

But then, Horner had plenty of practice. He'd found his calling in the early '90s, when he was a single father in Apple Valley, Minnesota, and on a rare night out of the house discovered that Gators, a bar in the Mall of America, was letting women in for free when he'd have to pay half of his ten bucks just to get through the door. Horner filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Civil Rights about that, and campaigned so hard for his cause that he was convicted of harassing a department official.

After Horner left Minnesota for jobs in radio and advertising in Arizona, and California, and Oregon, and Idaho, he continued the fight against ladies' night, finally bringing it to Colorado in the summer of 2006. Our beery discussion did not dissuade him; instead, he kept filing charges against bars with the Colorado Division of Civil Rights and filing suit against more bars (including the one where we'd met) in Denver County Court, winning some and losing some. And then he filed suit against Westword, asking for $15,000 in damages because "from January to May 2007, the defendant published at least 30 discriminatory ads."

Ads that all promoted ladies' nights.

"This is not only something I can do as a United States citizen, this is something I believe I must do," Horner told Denver County Court Judge Brian Campbell during our day in court, in August 2007. "This is Rosa Parks-ish. This is Martin Luther King-ish.... It's about civil rights. It's about the protections of the U.S. Constitution.... This case is no different than if a black person was up here pleading for his or her rights, if she or he was denied equal treatment at a grocery store."

But it was different — because Horner wasn't suing the grocery store. He was suing a newspaper that had published an advertisement for a bar. He may have been "humiliated over not being invited to the party, and very, very angry," as he proclaimed in court, but Westword didn't host the party; we'd just mailed the invitations. Despite hours of mind-numbing testimony from Horner, the judge recognized this and ruled that the words "indirectly discriminate" in the state civil-rights statute do not apply to newspaper ads, because newspapers are not places of "public accommodation."

But Horner wasn't going down without a fight. "As a person in advertising, I know that your interpretation is totally incorrect," he told the judge.

On the surface, it does seem unfair that women can get into a club for free, and sometimes even drink for free, when men cannot. But this injustice hardly rises to the level of Rosa Parks being sent to the back of the bus, and I'd guess a true civil-rights activist would rather drive a bus over Horner than listen to him compare his cause to theirs. Besides, most bar owners would readily tell you that they offer ladies' nights not for ladies, but for men, so that they can be sure there are plenty of females in their establishment — an amenity most men appreciate. Liquored-up females, especially.

So Westword continued to publish ads touting ladies' nights, and last fall Horner filed a charge with the Colorado Division of Civil Rights, claiming that by repeatedly publishing these ads, we'd discriminated against him. On February 13, we learned that the division had determined there was "sufficient evidence to support the charging party's claims of denial of full and equal enjoyment of a place of public accommodation and discriminatory advertisement by a place of public accommodation." Since this was a "probable cause" determination, division director Steven Chavez concluded, "Parties are hereby ordered to proceed to attempt resolution of this claim by compulsory conciliation."

Thus far, Horner's conciliatory attempt has been to inform us — through the division's mediators — that if we pay him $7,000, he will settle this claim and never file suit against Westword again. But if we up the ante to $20,000, he will also agree not to teach other people how to make money off of ladies'-night claims.

He is holding us hostage.

And the state helped write the ransom note.

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