The First Amendment is like that unwritten rule about the things you’re not supposed to discuss in a bar — politics and religion — because that’s what it’s really about. This is probably why the government isn’t in the bar business. Because of the First Amendment, the government can’t stop you from supporting the political candidate or issue of your choosing, and they can’t tell you where to go to church, or even whether you should go to church at all. But the First Amendment only applies to the government — not your parent, your teacher or professor, and unless you work for them, the government isn’t your employer either, which means that the First Amendment doesn’t protect you from being grounded, sent to detention, or, for us grown folk, from getting fired for saying you hate your job, you’re way overqualified and underpaid for the position, or even that your boss’s new toupée looks goofy.
But what about if you do actually work for the government? Does that mean you have carte blanche, that you can say whatever you want? In case you were gonna say yes, you should check with former Michigan assistant attorney general Andrew Shirvell. Shirvell’s homophobic rants went on for weeks before he was eventually fired by Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, and ultimately, he wasn’t fired for the things he said; he was fired for using state resources and time to facilitate his outrageous personal agenda: “To be clear, I refuse to fire anyone for exercising their First Amendment rights, regardless of how popular or unpopular their positions might be,” Cox said in a public statement, “However, Mr. Shirvell repeatedly violated office policies, engaged in borderline stalking behavior, and inappropriately used state resources, our investigation showed.”
For better or worse, if all Shirvell had done was made idiotic homophobic statements on his own personal blog, he may still be employed as an assistant attorney general for the state of Michigan. If you remember some of the things he said, you might find it troubling that someone like that could hold such a public position. According to his boss, Shirvell had a right to his personal opinions, no matter how bad they were. It’s unfortunate that Leslie Anderson, a state attorney in New Jersey, wasn’t entitled to her opinion.
Leslie Anderson is a recent law school grad, who took and passed the bar exam, and was sworn in as a member of the bar. In September, she started her first job as an attorney — judicial law clerk to The Honorable Travis L. Francis, Assignment Judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey for Middlesex County. But last week, she suddenly lost her job, over some comments she posted on Facebook about a police officer who was killed when his car struck a deer on I-195 a few days earlier. To lose her job, Anderson must’ve said some horrifically awful things, right? Not really. In fact, but for the deceased being a police officer, what she said probably wouldn’t have mattered, much less gotten anybody’s attention.
The comments Anderson posted on Facebook were almost immediately removed, so the exact words and context are unknown, but it appeared that she was responding to comments posted by others, in response to a local news article about the accident. Anderson was quoted as saying that the officer’s death was, “Not that sad, and certainly not tragic.” She also made a comment that cops typically drive fast, because they can. Do all cops do it? Maybe not, but everyone knows that cops do whatever the hell they want, because there isn’t anybody to stop them, and it’s always your word against theirs, the latter of which carries more credibility with the courts 110% of the time. The point is that it doesn’t matter, because Anderson should have been entitled to her opinion, whether about cops, or what she orders on her burrito at Chipotle. Was what she said insensitive? Sure. But the last time I checked, it wasn’t against the law to say things that are insensitive.
I didn’t know the deceased officer. And I don’t know Ms. Anderson, either (though I’d be delighted to represent her if she decides to sue the state for violation of her constitutional rights). But I’m sad for her. I’m not saying that what happened to the officer wasn’t sad. Loss of life is always sad. But the officer’s death only impacts his own circle of family, friends, and acquaintances. What happened to Leslie Anderson affects us all, because when she lost her job because of something she said on Facebook, we all lost a piece of our fundamental rights. It’s ironic that the police unions are celebrating Anderson’s sudden and involuntary departure from the judiciary, because the next person to lose their job for expressing a personal opinion could easily be a cop.