"Sex Bias Seen at Justice Dept.,"

reads a front page headline in the L.A. Times print version. But the story says nothing about bias against women or against men, which is the standard understanding of the phrase "sex bias." Rather, the story discusses what the electronic version correctly labels "sexuality bias" -- discrimination by the Justice Department based on perceived sexual orientation.

It's true that sexual orientation discrimination is in a sense bias based on sex, in that it is a bias based on one's belief about the kind of sex that other people are having, and based on the sex of the other people's sexual partners. Yet "sex bias" has a familiar meaning to the reading public, and that meaning is discrimination against men or women, not against gays or lesbians. And while I realize headline writers have to fit everything in a fixed space, and "sex" is shorter than "sexuality," still having a headline that fits doesn't justify an outright mischaracterization of what's going on.

I should say that if Monica Goodling and others did discriminate against prosecutors based on the prosecutors' perceived homosexuality, that would be quite wrong. It wouldn't be a violation of federal antidiscrimination statutes, which don't cover sexual orientation, and it probably wouldn't be a violation of the Constitution (I set aside for now the question of precisely how probable that is). Still, it would be an unwise and unfair basis for choosing employees.

Yet unwise and unfair as it would be, calling it "sex bias" is simply inaccurate, given the conventional meaning of that phrase. And it also makes the allegation more serious than it is: Sex discrimination is a violation of federal antidiscrimination statutes, and pretty clearly of the Constitution as well. (This might not be so for high-level appointees, such as the chief U.S. Attorney in each district, but it would be so for the lower-level employees, one of whom was mentioned in the story.)