Judith Levine: Ryan Roy should not have been fired

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Judith Levine, a writer and activist from Hardwick.

On Sunday, HBO aired Vice News’ powerful documentary about last week’s fatally violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

By Monday, Vermont viewers had identified a man onscreen as Ryan Roy, a 28-year-old Burlington resident who works as a cook at Uno Pizzeria and Grill. Roy appears briefly in the video, carrying a tiki torch and chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” On Tuesday tweets condemning Roy mounted, along with messages to his employer, informing it of the cook’s unsavory affiliations.

As far as we know Roy did not beat anyone up or run anyone down with a car. He did nothing criminal, or — at least he said as much to Seven Days — violent.

Nevertheless, he was fired. He was fired because he is a white supremacist.

Roy’s termination was legal. But I do not believe it is right, or productive.

Uno did not violate Roy’s constitutional right to free expression or assembly, said James Lyall, executive director of the Vermont ACLU. The First Amendment prohibits only the government from imposing restrictions on citizens’ speech. The government as employer may place certain limits on its workers’ speech, but even those continue to be challenged in the courts.

“The issue is “fairly clear cut when it involves the government,” Lyall told me. But when you get to the private sector, you’re entering more of a “gray area.” Private employers “do not have free range to do anything they want.” The courts have recognized employees’ rights to privacy and due process — to express themselves in social media without interference from the boss, for instance — and to be free from discrimination. On the other hand, employers have wide latitude to take action against a worker for speech they deem “detrimental to business or the workplace environment,” said Lyall.

In fact, those criteria appear to be what Uno had in mind when it axed Roy. “We are committed to the fair treatment of all people and the safety of our guests and employees at our restaurants,” wrote Skip Weldon, chief marketing officer for the Boston-based chain, in a statement.

Lyall thinks it’s legitimate for Uno to consider an avowed Nazi in the kitchen a threat to the company’s reputation and the comfort and security of Roy’s coworkers. At the same time, he expressed sympathy with my misgivings: “You don’t want a situation where [expressing] any political opinion results in retaliation by an employer,” Lyall said.

No, you do not.

It wasn’t long ago when an avowed communist in the kitchen would have elicited the same response. During the McCarthy era of the 1950s thousands of people were fired or blacklisted because they were, or were suspected of being, communists or communist sympathizers (McCarthy got started with witch hunts of homosexuals in the State Department). My father, a New York City public school teacher, refused to sign a loyalty oath to the U.S. government, which included disavowing any subversive beliefs. He lost his job. But the purges extended beyond government — to Hollywood, to unions, no doubt to restaurant kitchens.

I am as terrified as my African-American sisters and brothers by the specter of hundreds of white supremacists carrying torches, clubs and semi-automatic weapons. Propaganda scares me almost as much. My stomach dropped when I heard that the far-right Sinclair Broadcasting is buying up hundreds of local TV and radio stations. I’ve spent the last few evenings poring over real estate listings in Montreal. As a Jew, I am not sanguine that “it” cannot happen here.

But as the daughter of a blacklisted leftist, I am also frightened by the firing of Ryan Roy.

It is not that speech is safe and actions are dangerous. Ideologies, including those that do not explicitly espouse violence, can be lethal. Witness the Crusades, or the Vietnam War, or China’s Cultural Revolution, to name a few of countless bloodbaths mobilized by beliefs.

Nor is Charlottesville the first time in more recent memory that the opposing ideologies have faced off in our streets, with deadly consequences. In Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1979, four members of the Communist Workers Party and another person, all demonstrating in support of the rights of mostly black textile workers, were killed in a shootout with members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party; about a dozen others, including one Klansman, were wounded. This week, moved by Charlottesville, the Greensboro City Council issued an apology for the circumstances leading to those deaths. A little late, you might say.

What do we do about hateful, dangerous speech? The solution is not to censor it, as Germany does of fascist sympathies, in an attempt to prevent the nation’s descent, again, into hell. It’s a mark of the Germans’ trust in their government that they believe it can enforce these laws justly. It’s also ironic, given that this tactic meant to ward off Nazism is the same one that helped the Nazis rise to power. Hitler and Goebbels just considered different speech unacceptable — “degenerate art,” for instance, or Jewish liturgy.

Hate speech laws aren’t the right way either. I find it hard to distinguish, as the ACLU does, between hate speech laws, which it opposes, and hate crimes laws, which it endorses. The latter enhance criminal penalties for killing someone because she is, say, Asian or transgender, but not because she stole your cocaine. To me, both hate speech and hate crimes are thought crimes. I personally care why you killed the transwoman, but I don’t think the law should.

Opposing government censorship is straightforward. It’s what we do as private citizens that gets murky.

But if anyone hoped the flaming and firing of Ryan Roy would change his mind, they were mistaken. He told Seven Days’ Goldstein he thought he’d lie about him in the paper — because he’s Jewish and “that tends to be what your ethnic group does.” And he suggested to the Burlington Free Press that the reaction has only hardened his convictions. “I think it kind of just proves my point, proves a lot of what I think,” he said. “Not that I needed further proof.”

Maybe this guy’s a lost cause. But if he is ever to be dissuaded, he needs proof that while his bigotry is under attack, he will not be punished for holding even the most repulsive beliefs.

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  • Nachman Avruch

    Strangely, Levine articulated no reason for Uno’s to have kept Roy on. If she had been his employer, knowing his beliefs, his associates, etc., would she have retained him alongside other employees who may be gay, Jewish, or black? If her other employees felt their lives were threatened by his conviction that they should be expelled from this country to create a white ethno-state, would she not react?

    What if customers who are the targets of Roy’s hate feared for their safety and declined to eat the food he makes? Continuing to employ Roy would have threatened Uno’s other employees, its reputation and its continued viability as a business. Uno’s actually had no choice but to fire him, and they did the right thing.

  • Tory Rhodin

    I assume at least part of why he was fired is that Pizza Uno doesn’t want to lose business from people who won’t patronize a restaurant that knowingly employs a Nazi, and they probably don’t want picketers, and they don’t want to expose their other workers to a hostile working environment. What happened to your father was an outrage committed against countless principled, harmless people. Present-day neo-Nazis are neither principled nor harmless.

  • rosemariejackowski

    Good article. Yes, we are in another McCarthy era.

  • Nina Bartlett

    Judith Levine wrote an excellent article. Ryan Roy should not have been fired. If I went into UNO’s and wore an anti-Sanders button, would UNO’s deny my right to buy a pizza? UNO’s succumbed to pressure and took the easy way out. I will not buy my pizzas there.

  • Mary Reed

    As painful as it was for people with leftist sympathies and beliefs to be blacklisted, and for their families and friends to watch what they endured, there is not a direct correlation here. Persons with such sympathies and beliefs did not, in most situations, pose a real problem for their employer – not for the business, not for coworkers, not for consumers, etc. They were discriminated against because of their beliefs. That is constitutionally wrong – it is unacceptable. Mr. Roy was not discriminated against because of his beliefs. His employer terminated him because he posed a real risk to the business – a risk that the employer could see and articulate. This is not about free speech, freedom of belief, or even freedom of association. It is not about, or relevant to, Mr. Roy’s constitutional rights. It is about the employer’s right, and responsibility, to safely manage the business. To paraphrase a friend always quick with a ‘constitutional quip’, Mr. Roy’s rights ended at his employer’s nose.

  • Mary Reed

    I don’t totally disagree with your thoughts about another McCarthy era, but I mostly disagree. We who speak up are either terminally dense or aware of people trying to shut down, or at least ‘tune out’, the politically-oriented discourse that engages us. They find it uncomfortable, or scary, or whatever, and we do see, and hear about, that discomfort. It’s not a ‘leap’ to imagine they’d prefer we not speak our minds. That, however, is where the analogy ends. The serious difference, and thus the reality now, is that we who speak our minds (as long as we don’t make overt threats) do not face the loss of our civil rights. During the real times of the real Joseph McCarthy, that was not the case. Real people – decent, good souls who had harmed no one, along with the less-than-saintly but guilty of nothing except the gall to speak up – suffered terribly. Their civil rights, and their lives, were trampled. Many never recovered. Ms. Levine’s comparison of Mr. Roy’s situation to the horrors of McCarthyism just doesn’t wash.

    • jan van eck

      But let’s remember what’s changed: the development of the plaintiff’s bar. With attorneys quite ready and capable to file tort damages suits against the offenders, those getting victimized can, and do, file suit for money damages and injunctive relief. That did not much happen in the McCarthy Era, mostly because of a hostile judiciary (still a big problem today) and a hostile jury (much less of a problem today).

      Nothing like a fat $45 million Judgment to trim the abusive impulses of profoundly evil people. The lawsuit is the great leveller.