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.