Suspension of Gallaudet University’s Chief Diversity Officer Raises Question: Can You Be Fired For Your Political Views? Part 1 of 2
Just to reaffirm what My Esteemed Colleague from Baltimore has already said (twice): we are still not a political blog. We look at employment disputes, with a real focus on those involving a contract between an employer and an executive. We keep our political views to ourselves (or at least out of the blog).
But the problem is that many folks don’t keep their political views to themselves, either in or out of the workplace. And that means disputes between companies and executives about political speech – whether it’s companies encouraging employees to vote for a certain candidate, or employees getting fired for their political views – are dominating the field of employment disputes between companies and high-level employees right about now. Maybe it’s because we’re less than three weeks from the election. Maybe it’s pent-up tensions in the workplace caused by economic stress.
We don’t know why. But we do know that here in Washington, coverage of a dispute between Gallaudet University and one of its executives, centered on the executive’s signature on a petition, has dominated the news. Given that there is no more coverage of the Washington Nationals this season, the story is being followed avidly. It draws into sharp relief an issue that comes up often this time of year: can you be fired for your political views?
The short answer is: probably yes, but it can depend strongly on the state law that would govern the firing and the particular circumstances. In the first part of this series, we’ll look at the Gallaudet controversy. Tomorrow, I’ll post more on the analysis of the issues this controversy raises for executives and employers.
But first about the controversy at Gallaudet. For our readers outside the Washington area who may not know of it, Gallaudet University, according to its website, is “the world leader in liberal education and career development for deaf and hard of hearing students.” It has a beautiful campus in D.C., almost 2,000 students, and a history going back to Abraham Lincoln.
It also has, among its executives, a Chief Diversity Officer named Angela McCaskill. At some point in the spring, McCaskill and her husband – along with some 200,000 other Maryland residents – signed a petition to put Maryland’s law authorizing same-sex marriage up for a public referendum. Enough signatures were gathered for the law to be put on the November 6 ballot.
McCaskill’s signature was discovered and published by Planet Deaf Queer, an online resource for deaf and hard of hearing people who are gay. News of the signature spread quickly, and two faculty members at Gallaudet called the matter to the attention of university officials. On October 10, Gallaudet’s president T. Alan Hurwitz placed McCaskill on paid administrative leave for participating in what he described as "a legislative initiative that some feel is inappropriate for an individual serving as Chief Diversity Officer; however, other individuals feel differently.” Hurwitz added he would consider “the appropriate next steps” while McCaskill is on leave.
And then all you-know-what broke loose, and the small political act of signing a petition became front-and-center in a huge debate about Maryland’s law and the referendum. Within two days, the conservative Family Research Council – which opposes same-sex marriage rights – had collected 15,000 signatures on another petition, calling for McCaskill’s reinstatement and Hurwitz’ resignation. Marylanders for Marriage Equality and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, both supporters of the same-sex law, also called for McCaskill’s reinstatement. The next week, McCaskill explained her signature wasn’t about the merits of same-sex marriage itself, but only supporting Maryland residents’ right to decide the issue via the political process. President Hurwitz said his diversity chief’s signature left “many individuals at our university...concerned and confused,’” but that he wanted to find a way to resolve the issue so McCaskill can come back to work. McCaskill – by then having retained an attorney – shot back that she would only come back if the university compensates her for the emotional distress and reputational damage she claims she has sustained. Two days later – with the firestorm not abating – Gallaudet stepped into the fray again, asking a group opposing gay marriage to stop running video of McCaskill in one of its television commercials, contending the footage is copyrighted by the University.
So, it’s been ten days brim-filled with brouhaha, and all over one person’s petition signature. We’ll follow this story and provide whatever insights we can as it develops.
Even before it’s over, though, the McCaskill case raises this important question: Can an executive be fired for political activity at work or outside of work?
Our discussion of the answer to that question – or at least the issues it raises you should know about – in the next post in this series, going live tomorrow.