Saturday, August 10, 2013

Satan, speech and stickers

Yesterday, Dan Bice wrote about Steven Krieser,an official in the Walker administration who was fired for saying that when he thinks about illegal immigrants, he sees  "Satan" in a Facebook post. Gov. Walker promptly fired him.

Did he deserve to be fired? Yes. I dislike - really dislike - the mandatory paroxysms of disgusts that we are supposed to exhibit whenever someone makes a comment suggesting unapproved forms of bigotry (not all bigotries are unapproved). I think we are far too willing to judge a life by one ill considered statement.

Having said that, while it is preposterous to label people who believe that illegal immigration is harmful and should be stopped "racist," it seems equally wrong (if distressingly common) to turn a legitimate policy dispute into a battle between the forces of good and evil ("I see Satan") and to dehumanize illegal immigrants by likening them to the forces of darkness. It is uncivil, un-Christian and miles over the top. I might even say that there is a whiff of sulphur in the tendency of people to - in this case, literally - demonize their opponents.

So I'm sympathetic to the Governor. If one of my employees had done something like that, I'd be inclined to do the same thing.

Is it legal? I think so, but the question deserves to be asked. Firing a public employee is state action and we must consider how it squares with the First Amendment.  Under what circumstances can a public employee be fired for his or here speech?

You might think that, since no one has a right to a government job, the state can fire someone for saying something gobsmackingly stupid and, for many years, that's how the United States Supreme Court saw it as well.

But in more recent years, the Court has recognized First Amendment limits on the ability of the government to fire people based on their speech. Essentially, public employees have a right to speak on matters of public concern in their private capacity without adverse employment consequences - unless their speech substantially interferes with his or her capacity to do the jobs.

Thus, it was unconstitutional to file a lower level government employee for stating, shortly after the failed assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, that she hoped they "get him" the next time.

This evolution of doctrine probably won't help Krieser. I don't know the particulars of Kreiser's job. But if he is a political employee or policy maker (as seems to be the case), it may well be that the expression of attitudes that are inconsistent with administration policy or which place the administration in a bad light do substantially interfering with his ability to do his job. (This suggests that lower level public employees can spew hate and, as a quick review of Wisconsin political blogs demonstrate, some do.)

Kreiser's comments were apparently prompted by an on-line discussion of the sale of a mock "hunting license" sticker or illegal immigrants at a Mobil station in Germantown. The "license" is an astonishing bit of dreck - hunting human beings is not funny. Whoever runs this particular Mobil station in Germantown is, at best, a first class idiot.

Rep. Gordon Hintz asks if we  "could not sell these stickers in 2013?" The answer is easy. The First Amendment allows us to sell them (the sticker does not amount to the type of imminent incitement of violence or offer to commit violence that might be constitutionally prescribed).

But we shouldn't. Again, I think reasonable people can differ about immigration issues. But I do not understand why it is funny to joke about shooting people because one doesn't like what they're doing. Not only does the sticker reflect poorly on station management, it insults the station's customers.

No, I don't think that the sticker is going to "cause" people to go out and commit violence but it's just one more contributor to the degradation of the public culture. It makes one long for the days before gas stations became convenience stores. 


George Mitchell said...

This post is a keeper!

"I think we are far too willing to judge a life by one ill considered statement."

Absolutely. Please keep this in mind in your subsequent posts.

David Blaska said...

Steve Kreiser is very much a political appointee. There is no constitutional right to a political appointment. His position (executive assistant to the department secretary) is an "at will" position. He serves at the pleasure of the secretary, who in turn serves at the pleasure of the governor. The unwritten rule is that the governor makes the headlines, not the appointees.