What’s Going On: A quarterback, a cop and a conservative reporter …
What's Going On
So what does an unemployed NFL quarterback and members of the St. Louis Police Department have in common?
Marge knows the answer.
Marge was a reporter at an Iowa newspaper I worked at in 2009. Anytime I hear someone refer to “the liberal media” I laugh to myself as I think of Marge.
Marge was in her mid-50s at the time and the longtime wife of a Covenant church preacher. She was the stereotypical preacher’s wife: played piano, sang hymns, was a great cook, and home schooled her children.
She also harbored extremely right-wing political ideologies which were inspired by her traditional Christian beliefs. And Marge was the type of person who wasn’t ashamed of what she believed, nor did she try to conceal it. She was quick to offer an opinion, and frequently a scripture verse to substantiate her beliefs. She wasn’t obnoxious, but she was also unwavering.
And then there was her car. It was a little four-door Chevrolet that was unremarkable in all things except for one: the number of bumper stickers.
I can’t tell you an exact number but it was more than 10, probably less than 20. And to ensure their maximum visibility, they were all grouped on her back bumper/trunk, leaving little to no room for any additions.
And as some (most?) bumper stickers do, these all portrayed a message … more specifically, a political one. Even more specifically, a political one that reflected a clear bias.
Fortunately for Marge, southwest Iowa, much like southern Minnesota and most of rural America, is a Republican stronghold. In the last election, 80 percent of voters there supported Donald Trump, up just slightly from Mitt Romney’s totals in 2012. As such, while Marge’s car stood out, her political beliefs did not.
However, her blatant political leanings did cause me as her editor to assign other reporters to certain stories. For example, when the Democrat governor came to town for a rally, I couldn’t send her in her GOP-mobile to cover the event. Nor could I send her to cover a story on Planned Parenthood.
Could she, as a professional reporter, separate her political beliefs and write a fair and objective story? Honestly, I think she could. But the perception was she was biased (which she was) and the subjects she would be covering would not be comfortable interacting with her.
Then came the memo.
It came from corporate headquarters at the end of 2009 and was an expansion upon the personnel policy regarding Internet usage, and more specifically, Facebook, which by that time had started to grow into the behemoth it is today.
The memo essentially stated employees couldn’t make public posts that reflected poorly on the newspaper. It was as subjective as common in the corporate world, and was primarily designed to prevent employees from complaining about their co-workers or bosses, or the paper in general.
But it also expanded another section of the personnel policy regarding political activity. Publishers and editors had already been banned from running for public office, but now all members of the news and sales staffs were included as well. Additionally, all publishers, editorial and sales employees were also prohibited from posting yard signs or banners supporting candidates.
And finally, the memo stated all publishers, sales representatives, editors and reporters should refrain from displaying politically themed bumper stickers.
Needless to say, Marge was mad.
I was infringing on her first amendment rights, she claimed. Not only was her right to seek office revoked, but we were trampling on her freedom of speech.
And she was right.
But what Marge had to accept was the same lesson Colin Kaepernick and members of the St. Louis police department are learning: freedom of speech doesn’t apply at work.
When Marge walked into the newspaper and clocked into work, she ceased being a private citizen, to which the first amendment applies. She became at that moment an employee. As such, she represented that employer, who had every right to tell her while she was working she could not express political opinions. In fact, an employer even has the rights to tell their employee to express specific political opinions while working, regardless of the employees’ personal convictions.
Everyone is familiar with the uproar created when Kaepernick, then a quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers, took a knee during the playing of the national anthem last year. The criticism he received was tremendous, especially from conservatives. He was disrespecting the flag. He was disrespecting the sacrifice of millions of veterans. He was disrespecting America and everything it represents.
Supporters, on the other hand, argued those same veterans he was accused of disrespecting sacrificed so he could have that right to protest. And it was that very freedom to protest the flag, and the country, truly represented. And that the NFL is wrong as owners individually refuse to add him now to their team, fearing the public backlash despite his obvious abilities.
They are right. But they are also wrong.
Kaepernick absolutely had a right to take a knee and make a political statement during the national anthem, just like Marge had the right to display her bumper stickers. But their employer, whether it’s the NFL or a newspaper, also has a right to say we aren’t going to pay you money to do that, so you’re fired.
Last week, St. Louis police battled protestors/looters/activists/thugs/whatever you want to call the large group of people filling the city’s streets following another controversial police shooting verdict. At one point, some police started taunting protestors by chanting in unison “Whose Streets? Our streets,” a slogan previously used by white supremacists during the recent civil unrest in Charlotte.
The mayor, whose house was previously pelted with rocks and trash by this same group, has since criticized both police and their chief for their actions. She reiterated their job is to protect … not to make inflammatory comments.
Ignoring the extraordinary environment where the comments were made, the police are being told the exact same thing Marge and Kaepernick were: while you are working, keep your opinions to yourself.
It may not be fair. It may not be right. But standing on your convictions and evoking your rights does have consequences and sometimes, they aren’t pleasant.
Gregory Orear is the publisher of The Journal. His award-winning weekly column, “What’s Going On,” has been published in four newspapers in three states for more than 20 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.