This piece was co-authored by Amanda Gailey and Julia Schleck, both of whom have interest in free speech and academic freedom.
Ron Brown is returning to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as Director of Player Development under new head coach Scott Frost. In 2012, when Brown used to work at UNL, he made anti-gay comments at an Omaha City Council meeting when he opposed an ordinance extending workplace protection to LGBT Omahans, and got into hot water over the fact that he seemed to be representing himself in his professional role when he said them. Brown was not kept on when a new coach was hired a few years later but is now returning. Brown is deeply homophobic and espouses religious views hostile to non-Christians. We find these beliefs repugnant, harmful, and ignorant.
We worry about a lot with this hire: that it sends a message devaluing our gay students and fellow employees, who are already a marginalized class in this state; that non-Christian athletes will feel coerced to participate in religious activity; that he will again represent any of these views as those of the University. We worry that he actively advocates for discrimination against gay people and believes the Bible should be law. We wonder how this could possibly not detrimentally impact students. We agree with gay former Husker Eric Leushen who sees this hire as a macroaggression and asked, “Why is there a lack of sensitivity around the implications and optics of this hire? Did Nebraska football consider how this would affect a large portion of their fan base who value inclusion?” These all seem like reasons that another candidate for the position might have been selected, but Brown was hired and is now an employee of a state institution.
We have seen calls for Brown’s dismissal, and we understand why people are upset. We are also upset. However, it is important to understand the law and the rights that we all have. This man has the right to hold these ignorant and hateful opinions and to express them in public. As he is not covered by the Hatch Act or laws governing certain kinds of government employees, he has the right to advocate for his views at city council meetings. This is the bedrock of free speech, a right that we all hold dear, and for very good reasons. We do not want to live in a country where the popularity of your opinion determines your ability to participate in democracy. If you wonder exactly how that will work out, we point you to the so-called “free speech advocates” in our state government who want Amanda’s head on a platter because of her political activity.
In a legal sense, Brown’s case is rather simple because his employer is the state and (with some exceptions) the state cannot censor political speech. But we’d like to also raise a larger question about calling for people to be fired when they are privately employed. It has become common for employers to fire people because they express political opinions in a public space. Sometimes an employer does this of their own volition, and sometimes it comes in response to outraged swarms of people responding to behavior that went viral–the cyclist who was photographed flipping off President Trump’s motorcade comes to mind. In the age of Facebook and LinkedIn, it’s easy to find out where people work, and easy to use that as leverage. While it is (usually) legal for a private employer to fire an employee for political activity conducted on their own time, we think our society needs to think hard about using this as a regular weapon in the culture wars.
Certainly there are cases in which a privately employed individual behaves so despicably and in a way that relates to their work that the decision to fire them is understandable. But the constant threat that individual workers will be fired for political speech outside of the workplace ultimately discourages us from participating in our democracy, and our democracy only works when we pay attention, speak, and act on the issues that matter in our lives. If we’re all getting fired for saying or doing something political on our own time, something that our employers happen not to like, then who will participate in our democracy? Only bosses, the independently wealthy, and the unemployed. (And if that final group ever wants to be employed, they would learn to keep their mouths shut, too.) This starts to sound less like a democracy and more like an oligarchy.
That said, Ron Brown absolutely does not have the right to discriminate against students based on religion, and he does not have the right to say homophobic or religious things on behalf of the Athletic Department. If he does either of these, there should be consequences for those actions. Unfortunately, sexual orientation and gender identity are not protected classes under federal or state law, so we don’t know how that kind of discrimination would play out, and this very issue seems headed to the Supreme Court. But if Brown is ever fired it should be due to actions taken on the job that make him unfit for his position, not because he speaks his views in public forums, as a resident of the U.S.
We say this not to dissuade anyone from expressing dismay to the University over this hire or asking them how they will ensure that the rights of students will be protected. People should ask how they can possibly play along with the concern about “conservatives” (whatever that means) “feeling safe on campus” in a state that is run by the Republican Party, where a regent wants black protesters to have their fellowships rescinded, where until last year gay people were banned from being foster parents, and where Chik-fil-A was just put into the student union. But we need to stop short of demanding Brown be fired based on his political speech. Should Ron Brown’s actions on the job be shown to be discriminatory, or should he represent his views as those of our institution, all bets are off on calling for his head. But until then, we need to find a way to fight these views without also undermining the ability of everyone to hold down a job and still speak, boldly and loudly, as watchful and active participants in our struggling democracy.