The acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse produced a number of immediate changes beyond the custodial status of the 18-year-old himself. GoFundMe lifted its ban on people contributing to his defense . . . after his defense was over and the verdict was in. Some media outlets finally reported on evidence that supported his self-defense claims and one critic called for “revisiting” the clearly biased reporting in the case. However, there is one person whose status has not changed: Norfolk Police Officer William Kelly who was fired for simply donating to the Rittenhouse defense fund and writing a supportive note as a private citizen. He made the comment and donation anonymously. The only thing more shocking than Kelly’s loss of his job is that Norfolk City Manager Chip Filer and Police Chief Larry Boone have retained theirs.
I criticized the firing of Kelly last April as a blatant attack on free speech. The termination occurred after Kelly made a $25 donation to the defense of Kyle Rittenhouse. He made the donation anonymously and added the comment “God Bless. Thank you for your courage. Keep your head up. You’ve done nothing wrong. Every rank-and-file police officer supports you.”
Early in the Rittenhouse case, activists sought to cut off Rittenhouse’s ability to raise money for his defense by harassing donors and (successfully) pressuring companies like GoFundMe to block contributions. A criminal defense in any case (let alone a high-profile case with ramped up prosecution teams) is hugely expensive. That financial threat can prompt some to plead guilty. That is why people want to help fund such defenses to guarantee true access to a fair trial. Activists and GoFundMe did everything they could to block such efforts and increase the pressure on this teenager to just plead guilty.
Back to Kelly. This is an officer who had served for almost 20 years when he decided to contribute to the defense. As a police officer, Kelly likely saw the defense grounds more clearly than most people. The jury ultimately agreed with his view that Rittenhouse acted in self-defense. Nevertheless, activists learned his identity and demanded his termination. Filer rushed to satisfy the mob. He fired Kelly with the support of Boone and declared “his egregious comments erode the trust between the Norfolk Police Department and those they are sworn to serve.”
The “egregious comments” were to say anonymously that there are officers who support Rittenhouse and believe in his defense. Kelly has pointed out that Boone was allowed in uniform to march with Black Lives Matter protesters. Yet, he was fired for anonymously making the supportive donation and statement to a legal defense fund.
Various public officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris, have contributed to the The Minnesota Freedom Fund, which “pays criminal bail and immigration bonds for those who cannot otherwise afford to as we seek to end discriminatory, coercive, and oppressive jailing.” They have the right to support such legal defense funds, which serve to assure that litigants have the means to defend themselves. So does Kelly.
When Kelly was fired, many on the left celebrated despite the fact that he was being denied his right to free speech and free association. It is a pattern that I have written about in the past as public employees are fired for statements on social media or associations in their private lives. This includes a New Jersey police officer fired for calling BLM protesters “terrorists” on her personal Facebook account. Most recently, a court reinstated Loudon teacher Byron “Tanner” Cross, who was fired for speaking publicly against gender identification policies.
As it stands, Kelly was fired for supporting (again anonymously) a teenager who was ultimately acquitted of all charges by a jury. He was fired for contributing to a legal fund that would guarantee that the accused would be allowed to put on a full defense. That is in the interest of justice.
Yet, Filer and Boone remain employed despite using their official positions to retaliate for the use of free speech. Kelly and his family continue to appeal his firing as they struggle to survive on the teacher’s salary of his wife. The dictator Idi Amin once proclaimed “There is freedom of speech, but I cannot guarantee freedom after speech.” That seems the standard applied in Norfolk where even anonymous support for a legal defense is grounds for termination.