Ex-employee says Hands On Originals printed questionable messages in the past

ssloan@herald-leader.comApril 24, 2012 

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This is the design for front of the proposed T-shirt.

PHOTO COURTESY GAY AND LESBIAN SERVICES ORGANIZATION OF LEXINGTON

In defending itself against a claim of discrimination for refusing to print T-shirts for Lexington's gay pride festival, Hands On Originals has cited a history of declining orders because of the messages on the apparel. But a former employee says the company has printed items that could be considered offensive.

In a statement, the company acknowledged it might have fulfilled orders it would have rejected otherwise, but it attributed that to its high volume of business.

"I was kind of surprised myself," said Alaphine Cavanaugh of the company's decision not to print the shirts for the gay pride festival. "They helped print up a lot of T-shirts that were offensive.

"It was kind of a shock to me that they didn't want to print those."

Cavanaugh said she worked for the company in sales and then in the front office from 1999 until she was laid off in 2008.

She specifically described a shirt that Hands On Originals produced for a bar. The shirt showed a silhouette of a large-breasted woman bending over. The T-shirt boasted a phrase that contained sexual innuendo.

Bryan Beauman of Paris, an attorney for the company, did not dispute that Cavanaugh worked at Hands On Originals. He also acknowledged that the company produced the T-shirt but said that was before Blaine Adamson became managing owner of the company in 2008.

"We were able to track somebody down who remembered that one, and that wasn't within Blaine's area at the time," Beauman said in an interview. He declined to identify the customer.

Beauman also said in a statement that other inappropriate messages might have gotten through the company's approval process.

"The company is a high-volume printer that often fills 30 to 40 orders each day, so it is possible that out of the thousands of orders it has processed, some inappropriate messages or designs might have slipped through the approval process," he said.

Earlier this year, Adamson refused an order from the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization of Lexington for 504 T-shirts to be printed for the organization's Lexington Pride Festival, the fifth edition of which is scheduled for June. The shirts were to include a stylized number 5 on the front with "Lexington Pride Festival" and a list of the event's sponsors on the back.

The GLSO filed a complaint with the city's Human Rights Commission, alleging that Hands On Originals violated the city's fairness ordinance, which protects against discrimination on grounds including sexual orientation.

The company's actions have led to stern comments from Mayor Jim Gray, and lost business from organizations including the Kentucky Blood Center. Fayette County Public Schools is holding off on new orders from Hands On Originals until the complaint is resolved, and the University of Kentucky has said it will examine whether it needs to bid out a new contract to replace its recently expired one with Hands On Originals.

The issue has created raucous public debate on talk-radio stations and online, led to Facebook groups that support Hands On Originals' actions or urge a boycott of the company, and attracted 60 people to a protest in downtown Lexington.

Lawyers from the Alliance Defense Fund, a group that says it focuses on "religious freedom" and whose attorneys are representing Hands On Originals, wrote in the company's response that it didn't violate the ordinance because the religion-based refusal was due to the message of the shirt rather than the GLSO members' sexual orientation.

The company's "owners did not want to communicate the message of the requested shirt — that people should be 'proud' about engaging in homosexual behavior or same-sex relationships — nor did they want to promote the pride festival or the ideology conveyed at that advocacy event," the lawyers wrote, adding that Hands On Originals has gay employees and "has filled past orders for customers who it knew identified as homosexual."

In the same filing, the company's attorneys said it has "regularly declined requests" to print materials "that its owners do not want to endorse."

The company cited three examples since 2007, two dealing with sexual innuendo and a third request from a college club to print a picture of Jesus walking on water next to a pirate ship.

"It is important because it demonstrates that it goes to the message that's being requested and not to the identity of the person who is requesting it," Beauman said. "I think it's equally important that there are other orders that are processed by people who identify as homosexuals.

"It's nothing to do with who was asking but more the message they were asking for."

But Aaron Baker, president of the GLSO, said the T-shirt's message is one of identifying the people who are protected under the fairness ordinance.

"They're basically saying we're happy to do business with gay people as long as gay people are not happy to be gay," Baker said. "That is what's ridiculous to me about it.

"It would be no different than saying we refuse to print T-shirts for the Roots & Heritage Festival, because we don't have a problem with doing business with black people, but we don't think you should be proud to be black."

Jack Harrison, an assistant professor at Northern Kentucky University's Salmon P. Chase College of Law, said a key consideration in the case would be the company's approval process for customer orders.

In this case, the company acknowledges that the normal process was not followed. Typically, the company's salespeople might decline orders that would be "promoting messages that the owners do not want to support," the company said in its response to the GLSO's complaint.

Some orders, though, are presented to Adamson for his approval. In the case of the GLSO's order, though, the salesperson was not able to view the content of the shirt because it had not been finalized. Weeks later, a GLSO representative called Hands On Originals to negotiate a lower price and wound up speaking with Adamson when he couldn't remember the salesperson's name, according to the company's filing.

The company said Adamson spoke with the GLSO member and asked about the festival and the organization, and about the shirt. He was told it would depict the festival's logo, name and sponsors.

"Mr. Adamson knew that his religious convictions prohibited him from printing that shirt, promoting that event or supporting the messages advocated at that event," the company said in its response.

Harrison, who is not involved with the case, said the process creates some questions.

"It's not as if someone was objectively viewing the message on the shirt and said, 'We can't possibly print that or be associated with that,'" he said. "The content of the message only became important and relevant, it seems, once the owner discovered who the group was."

Scott Sloan: (859) 231-1447. Twitter: @HeraldLeaderBiz.

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