After the posting this morning over the controversy involving former Indiana Deputy Attorney General Jeff Cox, I had an opportunity to discuss the allegations with him in detail. Cox makes an interesting free speech case over his treatment and later termination for comments that he made on Twitter and on his blog. I wanted to share some of those details and the concern over a termination based on a lawyer’s statements in his private life.
Here are the salient facts that Jeff Cox revealed in our conversation:
First, Cox confirmed that he never connected his statements to his position at the Indiana Attorney General’s office. After he created his blog, he corresponded anonymously. Later, he added his name but never identified himself with his office. Indeed, he told me that Adam Weinstein from Mother Jones first contacted him at his work e-mail. He responded to that e-mail from his personal e-mail. When Weinstein again replied using his work address, Cox said that he answered his questions using his personal account.
Second, Cox says that his superiors knew that he had the blog and did not discourage him. Indeed, he said that he started the blog Pro Cynic in 2004 as an experiment for the Indiana Attorney General’s Office, which was still unsure of how to use blogs. He began to use his real name only after he was assured that he could not be punished for blogging so long as he did not associate his office or his position with the blogs. He recounted how, sometime in 2006, he had discussions with senior staff and was told that there was no need to keep his blog posts pseudonymous. He said that he viewed the blog as personal, not representative of the office, because he never identified it with the office, blogged on his own equipment and time and did not talk any issues that related to the office or state matters. The office simply asked him to avoid discussing local or state issues. Ironically, that meant that Cox focused on international issues like Afghanistan and out of state issues like that of the strike in Wisconsin.
Third, Cox insists that many of these comments are taken out of context. He said that he made a great number of comments designing to start debates and often meant in jest. He is not anti-union and actually comes from a union family (his father is a union member and his family is composed of steel workers and coal miners). He said that he was bothered by reports that the Sergeant of Arms told legislators that he could not guarantee their safety but that the reference to live ammunition was meant as hyperbole. He insisted that he liked to spar on the blog and often used incendiary language to spur debates. That is why, he insists, his site was called “Pro Cynic.” “Pro Cynic” was short for “Professional Cynic” and was “always intended to be a mixture of seriousness and humor, ‘cynic’ being a synonym for satire, sarcasm or irony.” He stated that the office was aware of his often off-the-wall commentary on the blog, which would sometimes be the subject of office joking. He says that he would make fun of himself on the site, such as proclaiming that the site was “one small step for man …”
Fourth, Cox did not work in any area remotely associated with the Wisconsin controversy. He handled eminent domain cases and was a member of the transportation practice group.
Fifth, he was terminated by the Attorney General’s office after a brief discussion with his superiors. He was told that he could be fired for simply bringing discredit upon the office — even due to statements made as an individual.
Sixth, Cox had a good record with the office. In fact, in 2010, he earned the “You Rock” award – a painted rock – for going above the call of duty in serving the people of Indiana. He had worked with the office since 2001 when he began as a law clerk and continued after his graduation.
In my view, these facts (if proven) would make for a strong free speech claim. We have been discussing the trend toward increasing discipline for public officials based on actions or statements occurring in their private lives. We have seen this regulation of private speech in cases that involve disciplinary actions against students (here, teachers (here and here and here and here and here and here), police officers (here and here and here) and other public employees (here).
The connection made in this context to the office was not apparently made by Cox but by Mother Jones magazine. Cox has since closed his blog and regrets causing the controversy. The question is why he was not simply given a warning about such comments and how they reflect upon the office. Now that his name has been associated with the office, he would likely have curtailed or stopped such comments.
There is obviously a great deal of anger over these comments, but the real question is whether a public employee like Cox has any protection for comments made as a private citizen.
In 2006, the Court decided the case of Garcetti v. Ceballos, in a close 5-4 decision against a public employee. In this case, Justice Kennedy ruled that the First Amendment does not protect “every statement a public employee makes in the course of doing his or her job.” However, this was a case where the assistant district attorney was making the comments are part of his duties and the Court ruled that “when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.” In this case, Cox made no association with his office. Notably, even in a matter involving statements made in the course of one’s duties, the vote was a close call with Justice Alito deciding the case as the fifth vote.
In Pickering v Board of Education (1968), the Court ordered the reinstatement of a teacher who wrote a letter to a newspaper critical of the local school board. The Court found that a public employee’s statements on a matter of public concern could not be the basis for termination without more of a showing, such as knowing or reckless falsehoods or the statements were of the sort to cause a substantial interference with the ability of the employee to continue to do his job.
I have great problems with the scope of the Garcetti opinion. Yet, Kennedy did note that:
At the same time, the Court has recognized that a citizen who works for the government is nonetheless a citizen. The First Amendment limits the ability of a public employer to leverage the employment relationship to restrict, incidentally or intentionally, the liberties employees enjoy in their capacities as private citizens. See Perry v. Sindermann, 408 U. S. 593, 597 (1972) . So long as employees are speaking as citizens about matters of public concern, they must face only those speech restrictions that are necessary for their employers to operate efficiently and effectively. See, e.g., Connick, supra, at 147 (“Our responsibility is to ensure that citizens are not deprived of fundamental rights by virtue of working for the government”).
This case would appear to involve matters of public concern and comments made as an individual citizen.
What do you think?
Additional source: ABA Journal