Misconstruing free speech, revisited – Andrew Shirvell

Andrew Shirvell was an assistant attorney general in the state of Michigan. He helped the execution of a campaign against an openly-gay student at the University of Michigan. His role in that campaign led to his termination, and a Court recently ruled he is not entitled to unemployment benefits.

The reason is quite simple: being terminated for cause does not entitle you to unemployment benefits.

Now Shirvell wasn’t fired simply for his speech. He was fired for numerous violations of official policies and misuse of state resources. He even went so far as to contact the student’s employer, who happened to be then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and also engaging in other forms of harassing behavior toward the student.

So clearly he wasn’t fired just for his speech, but he was certainly trying to make it sound like that was the case. Even if it was the case, it still doesn’t save him from termination.

Let me reiterate: your speech is not immune from consequence. I’ve written on this before back during the fallout when one of the more vocal members of the Robertson clan was let go from Duck Dynasty and everyone tried to make it sound like the entirety of the First Amendment had been repealed by A&E with that singular action.

For example, I don’t write about health care much, and when I do, I must be careful about what I write. Whenever an article comes up about a hospital or clinic, I always double-check whether said hospital or clinic is one of my employer’s clients or prospects before sharing it or writing an opinion on it. Any articles I come across that pertain to my employer or call out my employer directly I do not share, even if the article is positive.

If I speak negatively about one of my employer’s clients, or about my employer, I could be fired for cause or forced to resign — the latter of which would still entitle me to certain benefits under my employer’s policies — and nothing in the law would protect me from that. And I would not be entitled to unemployment benefits should that occur, even if what I write occurs during my off-hours on my own computer.

For example, if I was employed by British Petroleum at the time of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and I liked or shared an opinion piece decrying BP as destroying the environment, I could be fired for that because what I would be liking and/or sharing is intentionally disparaging of BP, and my action could rightly be interpreted as disparaging my employer.

The problem becomes even more acute when we’re talking about a government official. A police officer once said to me that there is no difference between an off-duty and on-duty officer. They are still a police officer. As such there is also no difference between an off-hours and on-hours prosecutor, or an off-hours and on-hours attorney. With many professions, clocking out doesn’t separate you from your job. Clocking out doesn’t mean that you can suddenly do and/or say whatever you want and your employer cannot touch you. If what you do or say during your off-hours reflects poorly upon your employer, you’re not immune from consequence.

And again, being a government official makes it very difficult to separate yourself from your job. Anything a government official does during what they might consider their “off hours” could reflect poorly on the office that employs them. And the same could hold true for other professions as well.

It is why a common tactic of online aggressors is to discover the employer of one of their targets and contact them, in an attempt to get them fired. As an example of that, the information for the individual behind the (currently offline) Tumblr blog Plebcomics was published online, including employer information, and that person was fired from their job. It’s one of the reasons I’m often hesitant to engage certain topics on this blog. Sure I shouldn’t let fear drive me away from engaging or discussing certain topics, but the fear of losing your livelihood can still be a powerful motivator.

Again it is why I do not discuss my employer or my employer’s clients on this blog, and even with regard to health care I am careful about what I write. Because the law only protects you from prosecution for what you write, but not from being fired for it unless what you are writing falls under certain protected classifications under Federal law.

And executing a campaign targeting one specific, openly-gay student is not religious expression, especially when coupled with other behavior that any reasonable person would call harassment.