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A little perspective on the Anesia Baptiste matter

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26.FEB.10

Editor: Lost amid the breathless hyperbole and partisan propaganda over the Anesia Baptiste disciplinary proceedings was any semblance of analysis or perspective. No one took the time to quote the relevant Civil Service Orders and regulations that govern Ms. Baptiste’s conduct as a government employee. No one took the time to revisit the Hansard to see what PM Gonsalves or Arnhim Eustace said when Parliament repealed the Public Officers (Conditions of Employment) Act.{{more}}

More important, no one took the time to cast their eyes beyond the confines of SVG to see whether it was unusual for governments to discipline public servants in countries with long histories of democracy and freedom of speech. Instead, we got the same lazy, mindless, knee-jerk reactions that pass for reasoned debate in our country. To quote Shakespeare: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

On 5th July, 2009, Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper told the tale of civil servant Lisa Greenwood, an office administrator at the Department of Children, Schools and Families. Ms. Greenwood was fired for making an anonymous comment on the Internet, where she called British Member of Parliament Hazel Blears “a disgrace” due to the MP’s behaviour in a scandal over expenses. Her anonymous comment was traced to her email account, and she was dismissed.

That same month, across the pond in the United States, Ms. Lee Landor, a New York civil servant, was given her walking papers for comments on her Facebook Internet page, where she called President Obama “O-dumb-a,” and made racially charged comments regarding Obama’s decision to have a meeting between a police officer and Professor Henry Louis Gates, who was a victim of racial profiling in Boston.

Similar tales are widespread. Police Officer Ronald Dible of Arizona, USA, was fired for sexually explicit (but perfectly legal) photographs and business interests outside of his work hours. Lennart Eriksson, an employee of the Swedish Migration Board, was demoted for expressing unusually strong pro-Israel views on his personal web site. In November, South Korean civil servants were barred from collectively expressing opposition to government policies or wearing any form of clothing containing political messages. An anonymous blogger who called herself “The Civil Serf” was caught and suspended from her post after the British government dedicated a team of computer experts to tracking her down across the Internet. Today, President Obama’s government faces numerous charges of purging the USA civil service of Bush-era appointees – based on nothing more than their political inclinations.

And the list goes on.

These suspensions, demotions and dismissals are not taking place in “repugnant, repulsive and repressive” dictatorial countries, as some scandalmongers and yellow journalists would allege. They are occurring in bastions of democracy and free expression. Only if stripped of all context can Ms. Baptiste’s tale seem remarkable in any way.

Every government, everywhere in the world, places restrictions (as well as protections) on civil servants. The restrictions usually include limits on political speech and attacks on the state machinery. In England, for example, these limits are enshrined in the Civil Service Code, whose core values are defined as “integrity, honesty, objectivity, and impartiality.” The “impartiality” component includes numerous restrictions on political speech, as the examples above illustrate. Even anonymous Internet comments can get you fired.

Similarly, the United States has the “Hatch Act,” which has numerous restrictions on political speech by civil servants. These restrictions include a prohibition on making campaign speeches, wearing political buttons, raising funds for political parties, or holding office in political clubs or parties, among others.

The Hatch Act has been challenged many times in the US Supreme Court on Freedom of Speech grounds. Each time, the Court has balanced individual speech rights against the “elemental need for order,” and sided with the need for order. This has led one legal commentator to conclude that “for those individuals who have chosen a career in the federal public service, the Court has found that Congress may place an asterisk beside their First Amendment rights.”

As far back as 1892 – well before the Hatch Act – famous American Jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled on the firing of a policeman for political speech by saying bluntly “the petitioner may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman.”

Holmes went on to say “there are few employments for hire in which the servant does not agree to suspend his constitutional right of free speech, as well as of idleness, by the implied terms of his contract. The servant cannot complain, as he takes the employment on the terms which are offered him.”

The same is true today. Ms. Baptiste has a constitutional (she may say “inalienable”) right to speak her mind. However, she does not have a similarly inalienable right to indiscriminately cuss the government from her cushy post as a government employee.

Much ado has been made of the government’s repeal of the Public Officer (Conditions of Employment) Act. That particularly draconian piece of legislation basically said that no civil servant could do, write, say or express any opinion of a political or administrative nature. It did not care about the content of what you said or how you said it. You could do and say NOTHING.

However, suspending the act did not mean that you could do or say ANYTHING. There are still basic rules in place for public servants, not to mention basic common sense. It is still possible to “go too far.” Pretending otherwise would lead to anarchy and paralysis.

Whether Ms. Baptiste has violated the rules of the public service and common sense remains to be seen. Personally, I saw nothing wrong with her participation in the “No” campaign – which was supposed to be an exercise removed from party politics. I do, however, find her newspaper column to be a shrill, repugnant screed, as I did her reprehensible anti-Semitic radio rantings a few years back.

These disciplinary charges are perfectly within the norms of democratic societies, which uphold free speech, due process and a properly functioning public service. Any claim to the contrary is disingenuous and devoid of any context.

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