Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Not such a clear case. What say you?

Today, I was listening to a host on a right wing radio station (unfortunately, that is pretty much the only kind we get up here) complaining about an emplyee for the public works department in Arapahoe County, Colorado who is possibly going to be fired for having a sign on a vehicle he uses for his private lawn mowing business but also drives to work in, reading, "Lawn Services Done With Pride!! By An English Speaking American.". The man also wore a hat with the logo of the U.S. border patrol to work. The county is saying that the sign and hat are offensive and insensitive. The host complained that the action taken by the county (where the man, Mike Gray, is a heavy equipment operator) is a violation of his first amendment rights.

In fact, this is a complex situation. First of all, we are a nation of immigrants, and even I, as a native born American, can see that in fact this sign could be offensive-- including to, among others, legal immigrants, as well as illegal ones, and people whose native language is not English (I am typing this right now at a location on the Hopi reservation, which is surrounded by the Navajo reservation, so it is a good bet that within a 50 mile radius of me, the majority of people are Americans who don't speak English as their native language, and in fact, quite a few who don't speak any other language at all except for Hopi or Navajo-- and their ancestors have been living here, speaking the same language, for hundreds of years.)

Now, the talk show host is right about one thing. We do have a first amendment right to be as insensitive as we darn well want to be. No one has the right to prosecute us in America for what we might say, unlike other countries. And that is a good thing, as I have pointed out in recent posts on the Mohammed cartoon controversy and a man sent to prison in Austria for denying the reality of the Holocaust.

But the county of Arapahoe is not denying Mr. Gray's first amendment rights. No one is proposing that he be prosecuted for anything he has said or done. They are instead threatening to fire him for his sign. And the first amendment does not protect one from being fired (something that right wingers seem to miss, at least when it applies to them.) For example, I posted last December on Night Bird's Fountain about a conservative who complained about a fundamentalist who had been fired from two jobs for pushing people at work to join his religion until he became a nuisance. In fact, I have a right to say what I want to legally, but my employer has a right to fire me for cause, and if I say anything that causes problems for my employer or for other employees, then they have the right to hold me accountable for my actions. Free speech does not guarantee that I will not have to face the consequences of that speech. And if Mr. Gray had put a sign like that up on his county vehicle, there is no question that the county would have every right to threaten to fire him.

However, we have a third level of complexity at play here. And that is where I have to say that the right wing host's view that Mr. Gray was justified is accurate, even though it has nothing to do with the first amendment, particularly since Mr. Gray complied with the request to stop wearing the hat at work. That is the fact that he was displaying the sign not at work, but on his own private vehicle (which presumably is parked in the parking lot when he goes out operating his heavy equipment). Now, many of us have bumper stickers or other signs on our vehicles, and I would posit that his employer does not have the right to tell him what he can paint on his vehicle. This is a tricky situation, isn't it?

To take an extreme example, if my employer signed a contract with, say, Nike, and mandated that all employees had to put a swoosh decal on our windows, I would object to that requirement, wouldn't you? What if your employer made a policy mandating that there could be no bumper stickers or any description, and that you had to come to work in a plain, unmarked vehicle? It seems that would also be overstepping their bounds. OK, what if they said that only certain bumper stickers or signs were OK in their parking lot-- for example, only bumper stickers endorsing candidates that they liked. You see, this truly is a 'slippery slope' type of argument. If it is your car, then you should have the right to show up in it, no matter what is on it. If it in some way violates a local civil ordinance (such as if you plastered the outside of your car with explicit pornographic paintings) then there are likely applicable local laws and the local authorities, not your employer would handle it (although nothing would prevent them from reporting you if you were in violation of the ordinance). But when an employer gets into the business of telling an employee what (s)he can put on a private vehicle, then in my mind, that is going to far, and the rights of the employee should be protected, no matter how offensive the message is.

I'm still mulling this one over, though, I would love to hear your comments.


Anonymous said...

I do believe the county and all other gonvernment should be held to higher standards than private business. I agree that any private business would have the right to fire him. However, Americans have been advertising their Americanishness for years. I don't see why it's offensive.

If non-English speakers have the right to be offended at such a sign, then I have the right to be offended that immigrants are not learning English to do business with me.

Eli Blake said...


Uh, as I pointed out in the post, not all non-English speakers are immigrants. In the area where I live, the majority of the population is native American, and they still speak their native tongues every day and maybe learn English as a second language if they have a reason to (the Navajo reservation is quite large, and there are still people who are born, live every day of their lives, and die there). That is Northern Arizona. Then, before that, I grew up in New Mexico. The Spanish speaking community there was rooted in New Mexico before Jamestown was even founded. It may be that where you live, the only people who don't speak English are immigrants, but that is certainly not true here.

The question though is what is within the purview of Arapahoe county. Right now, I tend to think that they overstepped their bounds by complaining about a private vehicle parked in their parking lot, and that there really is no standard for this (I mean, what if the boss doesn't like the shade of lime green that your car is painted? Can he order you to get it repainted?) But I can see both sides of this, certainly the idea that the host was claiming, that the first amendment protects you from being fired if your comments (or signs, or whatever) is causing a problem at work is absurd.

Anonymous said...

You gave an example that your employer couldn't force you to put a Nike swoosh decal on your car. But if you watch a professional basketball game, all the players have to wear one.

Anonymous said...


I think anonymous was right. As you said, non-English speakers fall into two categories--the immigrants and the non-imigrants. He said that he had a right to be offended when an immigrant wouold not learn English enough to do business with him.

I don't know if offended is the right word. But I support businesses insisting their patrons to speak English. What I mean is a shop owner should not get sued because the "Wet Floor" sign was only in English and the non-English speaking patron fell down and broke a hip.

Anonymous said...

There's certainly been a backlash recently against workers by employers who want to decree how they live on their own time, and that concerns me long term. A company called Weyco threatened to fire all of its employees who smoked because they feared they would raise health insurance costs (all of the threatened employees resigned before termination was completed). At least one US auto plant refuses to allow workers who drive vehicles made by its competitors to park on its lots. But this is the first time I've heard of a government agency threatening to fire someone for advertising their second jobs.

I'd need to know more about the background of this story before passing judgment on this case though. For instance, did Arapahoe County receive specific complaints from employees who felt his truck and/or hat constituted harassment against them, or is this a vendetta originating from his supervisor as the employee suggests?