So this gorilla shows up at the personnel office and asks for a job. The personnel director says, "Are you kidding? We can't hire you. You look like a gorilla." To which the gorilla replies, "Watch out, buddy, I'm gonna sue you for employment discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973."

Okay, it's not much of a punch line. What do you expect? I got it from the Harvard Law Review, in an essay arguing that it should be illegal to discriminate on the basis of physical attractiveness. In fact, says the author, "facial discrimination" may already be illegal under laws forbidding discrimination against the handicapped. "It . . . seems an arbitrary distinction to say that an employer cannot refuse to hire a person who has a disfiguring scar on his chin, for example, but can refuse to hire someone whose chin is jutting or unusually shaped."

The logic is impeccable. Appearance, like race and sex and physical handicap, is an immutable characteristic. Like these other disadvantages, an unattractive appearance usually has no connection to your ability to do the job. Therefore, discrimination on this basis is just as unfair and should be outlawed. Conservative opponents of the general trend in civil rights would have no trouble agreeing that this is, indeed, the logical extension of that trend. That, they would say, is a comment on the trend.

Even these conservatives, though, would have to concede that beauty is a great advantage in the world. In good law review style, the author cites an array of studies proving the obvious: people automatically assign favorable nonphysical characteristics to other people who are good-looking; strangers are more likely to do favors for physically attractive people; ugly people get higher sentences in criminal cases and lower damage awards in civil lawsuits.

Of course, many rise above the handicap of appearance to become distinguished professors at Harvard Law School and other successes in life. It is my experience, for example, that when you see a famous person in the flesh, he or she is almost invariably shorter than you expect. (A friend of mine adds a corollary that famous people are almost invariably tanned, but that's neither here nor there.) This pattern is partly explained by the exaggerated stature that famous people take on in your mind, but there must also be some kind of Napoleonic impulse that drives short people to succeed.

Nevertheless, no one would choose to be short and ugly over tall and handsome. We are all traumatized to varying degrees about our appearance. Facial discrimination is far more overt and shameless than racial discrimination: our culture doesn't even attempt to hide its preference for certain arrangements of facial and bodily parts over others. Few of us even pay lip service to the ideal of indifference to physical beauty.

Life will never deal an equal hand to the physically unattractive (or the "aesthetically challenged," as one tart conservative predicts the approved term will inevitably become). But shouldn't they at least be protected against discrimination in employment, housing and college admissions?

In many cases, looks may not be an irrelevant criterion at all. The anonymous author is prepared to make a few narrow exceptions for jobs like acting. But he takes a hard line against exceptions for salespeople, stewardesses and so on. If looks are an advantage in these fields (which of course they are), it is only because of prejudice in society as a whole, if not in the particular employer. We don't permit employers to pander to the racism of their customers. Why should we permit pandering to what might be called "looksism"?

No, the justice of the cause is beyond doubt. The question is whether we can afford to expand the awesome machinery of civil rights litigation into this vast new area. Of course, there is a natural restraint operating here, which the author unintentionally reveals in describing how an ugly-rights lawsuit might work: "an applicant will be able to point to some 'objective' aspect of his appearance -- such as obesity, shortness, an unusual-looking nose or protruding ears {or} an applicant may . . . be able to demonstrate that in some general way, given the totality of his appearance, he is considered unattractive." He also suggests the use of expert witnesses. But it will be an exceptionally greedy or bitter person who would wish to pay a beauty expert to describe in a public courtroom how ugly he is.

Yet conservatives have a point when they ask where it will all end. The author suggests that job interviews be conducted over the telephone, to avoid looks bias. But doesn't this leave open the possibility of prejudice on the basis of a whiny voice? Or, he says, job applicants could be interviewed behind a screen -- a system already used for orchestra auditions -- so that an unpleasant face doesn't obscure an applicant's "pleasant personality." But parents of newborns will tell you that personality is also largely innate and immutable. What about "grouch liberation"?

Well, the one citadel of prejudice we may be sure is free from storming by the battalions of Harvard Law School is our society's overwhelming bias in favor of smart people. They may be short, fat and ugly up there, with protruding ears, unusual noses, jutting chins and dyspeptic personalities. But they're not dumb.