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Investigating Firefighter for Silent Support of Anti-Racism Protest is Troubling

Posted: December 02, 2014|Category: Free Speech

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The ACLU of Rhode Island Tuesday said the investiagion into a Providence firefighter for silently gesturing in support of an anti-racism protest was troubling on a number of levels and raised a number of questions. Executive Director Steven Brown said:

"Unfortunately, recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have severely cut back on the First Amendment rights of public employees in the workplace. Even so, seeking to punish a firefighter merely for silently expressing support for an anti-racism protest is troubling on a number of levels. After all, the City has taken the legal position that firefighters can be forced to march in a Gay Pride parade against their beliefs. It’s somewhat ironic if city officials believe they can demand that firefighters participate in a demonstration of solidarity for gay rights but then punish a firefighter for quietly demonstrating support for racial justice.

"The response to this incident raises other questions. According to news reports, Commissioner Pare indicated that city policy may have been violated because the firefighter should have been “neutral” in a political protest.  While we can understand why police officers should generally demonstrate neutrality in a protest in which they are engaged in crowd control, did the Portland, Oregon, police officer seen hugging a young protester at a rally in support of the Ferguson protests engage in conduct that would have violated Providence’s “neutrality” policy? And even if such a policy makes sense for police officers in the middle of a demonstration, why must all other city employees demonstrate “neutrality” as well?  At a time of political unrest, is it a violation of “neutrality” for a city employee to publicly salute a flag in response to a flag-burning across town?

"Obviously, a government agency can set reasonable limits on what employees can say or do in their official capacities, and we don’t wish to minimize the complicated nature of issues that can sometimes be raised by government employee speech.  But the investigation of the firefighter’s silent expression in this instance is problematic and undeserving of any sort of punitive response."

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