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Shawn Dorsch and what free speech isn’t

Airport Advisory Committee chairman Shawn Dorsch tried a crafty line of defense Monday night, appealing to free speech values to avoid telling Charlotte City Council members how he’d been betraying them. It didn’t work. Dorsch was fired Tuesday by Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx. “You have given me very little choice,” Foxx wrote in his dismissal letter. He’s right.

The mayor and exasperated council gave Dorsch every opportunity Monday to explain why he lobbied a legislator and officials from other counties to support a bill that would take Charlotte Douglas International Airport from the city. Councilwoman Claire Fallon pounded the table in front of her. Foxx sneered. Councilman Andy Dulin called Dorsch “one slick fellow,” which might or might not be a step up from “chump,” which is what Dulin called Dorsch earlier this month.

Each wanted to know why Dorsch, whose role on the board is to help the city manage its multi-billion dollar asset, instead grabbed the pom-poms for an effort that would give the airport to a regional authority. His response: “I am happy to give anybody advice who contacts me.”

And: “We’re all free to express our personal opinions in a personal setting.”

And this: “Freedom of speech exists in this country.”

Of course. Here in the Opinion Department, the First Amendment is pretty much our favorite one. But Americans sometimes think, wrongly, that their amendments come free of limitations. The Second Amendment doesn’t grant citizens the right to any kind of weapon, despite what some gun advocates might think. And even those of us who most love the freedom to express opinions, well, we know what we can’t say.

The Supreme Court has provided general guidelines about speech the government can prosecute. First, of course, is speech that creates a dangerous situation – the proverbial “fire” in a crowded theater. Same goes for “fighting words” said face-to-face to incite violence. Also, no libel or slander – lies that damage a person or organization’s reputation. In times of war, the government can restrict speech that threatens national security. And finally, obscenity.

Shawn Dorsch’s “advice” didn’t fall into any of the above categories, so he should have been OK, right? Nope. As employees learn again and again the hard way – especially with social media – if you say something privately that reflects poorly on your employer, you can be fired. And if you’re the chairman of an airport advisory board who gives advice that causes harm to the city that appointed you, officials can decide you’re not good for the position.

If Dorsch felt strongly that the city was mismanaging Charlotte Douglas or its longtime director, Jerry Orr, Dorsch’s role as advisory chair compelled him to go to the council, not behind its back. How could any council member trust him to do his job moving forward?

Yes, we have free speech, but words have consequences. (Try the “freedom of speech” defense out on your spouse sometime and see how it works.) Dorsch surely knows this. He was artful Monday night – maybe even “slick.” And now, he’s fired.

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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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