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D.C. Taxicab Commission Stifles Speech, Discriminates Against Drivers With Accents

(WASHINGTON) – Some D.C. taxi drivers were barred from speaking during the public comment period of today’s D.C. Taxicab Commission meeting because of an illegal, discriminatory requirement that written testimony be submitted in advance because some commissioners said they have difficulty understanding some people with accents.

“The commission’s explanation that it requires written testimony in advance because it is ‘difficult for us to understand’ them is abhorrent, discriminatory and unlawful, especially in an international city such as Washington, D.C., where so many residents hail from all over the world,” Ferline Buie, President of Teamsters Local 922, said in a letter to Mayor Vincent Gray following the meeting.

Hundreds of drivers, members of the Teamster-affiliated Washington, D.C. Taxi Operators Association, showed up at the monthly meeting to protest unfair towing and ticketing of cabs and to demand a voice in the regulatory process. The commission required the names of drivers wishing to speak to be submitted in advance, which is customary. However, the association was informed that drivers must submit written testimony in advance to be allowed to speak, which is contrary to city policy.

“The reason we are asking for written testimony is because a lot of our cab drivers have difficulty with our language,” said Paul Cohn, a commission member, at today’s meeting. “It’s very difficult for us to understand some of the people that testify.”

“The commission’s illegal practice is applied in a shockingly discriminatory manner,” Buie said in her letter to Gray. “At today’s meeting, a driver rose to speak when his name was called, yet he was denied his right because his written testimony had not been submitted in advance. However, another driver was granted permission to speak because he had testified before the board in the past and commissioners said they could understand his accent. I hope you are as dismayed and offended as I was that this occurred at a public meeting of a government body in Washington, D.C., in the year 2013.”

The commission’s offensive actions can be viewed here.

The appalling actions follow an incident last week in which Gray’s spokesman insulted the more than 6,000 cab drivers in the city by calling the system “third world” in a media interview. Drivers were offended by the comment. Many of them are from Africa and the Middle East and work long hours driving a cab for meager pay to support their families. They view the commission’s requirement for written comments as an insult to all immigrants in the District.

“Drivers have long believed that their voices did not count to the Mayor’s Office, contributing to their frustration and anger,” the letter said. “Those concerns are justified, given what has transpired over the last week.”

Buie called on Gray to direct the commission to immediately halt its illegal, discriminatory practice of requiring written testimony from some members of the public wishing to speak. She also demanded that Gray publicly apologize to drivers who were denied their right to speak and who were subject to the commission’s offensive actions.

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