Viewpoint

What free speech safeguards don’t protect you from

People posting unpopular or hateful beliefs online are not protected from costs dealt out by the community.
People posting unpopular or hateful beliefs online are not protected from costs dealt out by the community. AP

If a widely circulated screen shot is to be believed, a career can evaporate in three minutes.

That’s how much time apparently elapsed between when Christine McMullen Lindgren posted an ugly, racially driven tirade and someone on Facebook said: “You work at Bank of America huh?”

She hadn’t mentioned her employer in her post, but apparently had elsewhere on Facebook. Within a day, she lost her job in Atlanta.

Free speech is a nice idea. But if you use it to show ugliness or unpopular views, expect a financial price.

Gerod Roth is happy he could find work again.

Last year he posted a Facebook photo of himself and the 3-year-old son of a co-worker. Friends posted racist comments about the child. Roth, apparently in response to someone asking why kids were running wild in his office, wrote, “He was feral.”

Ten months later, he’s still getting ripped online, where he’s labeled a racist. His employer wasn’t listed on his Facebook page, which also wasn’t under his real name. But it didn’t take long for people to figure out his real identity and where he had worked.

They asked that he be fired. As it turns out, he already had been laid off for unrelated reasons.

But the blood-letting may not be over.

“What do you think internet sleuths?” someone posted recently. “Can we get the rest of them fired? I Think We CAN!!”

Roth told me that for months he didn’t look for another job. When he finally did, he said he didn’t use his full name, figuring he’d never get a job if he did.

He said his comment wasn’t tied to race, that for days he hadn’t seen some of his friends’ ugly comments, that he urged them to stop and that he should have acted sooner. He said if he was the boss and knew only what was posted online – some of which he says was altered by “social justice warriors” – he would have fired himself.

(Roth said that important details about what he faced will be featured in a TV episode of a new broadcast network show slated to air this fall. He said he is under a non-disclosure agreement. He didn’t share details that would allow me to verify that.)

Recently, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution colleaugue wrote of a Georgia police officer who was fired after flying a Confederate flag at her home. A neighbor who complained said the officer’s police vehicle was parked in the driveway at the time.

The officer disputed the part about the vehicle and, no kidding, said she hadn’t realized such flags are often controversial.

Of course, any decent police force would want to avoid having officers displaying a flag that – for some who wave it – is a middle finger aimed at splintering our nation.

Of course, businesses want to protect their reputations and investments and the rest of their workers from the image damage done by an employee who spews hate online.

Of course, anyone who cares about basic decency wouldn’t want a kid’s image passed around online with racial smears.

I just wonder where this path will take us and if the destination is where we want to be.

Our Constitution restricts the government’s ability to quash your voice, not the ability of your boss, neighbors or strangers. Some federal and state protections offer defense, but they are limited.

Confrontation of ideas is healthy. Employers should – and, generally, do – have the right to protect themselves from employees who might cause them damage.

But what views will be allowed to stand in the light – where they can be seen and questioned?

And which will become the targets of vigilantes intent on not only confronting ideas they don’t like but also crushing the financial futures of those who hold them?

Email: mkempner@ajc.com.

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