Juli Briskman, the Virginia cyclist who flipped off the presidential motorcade and lost her job last fall, doesn’t think we should be afraid to speak our minds.
I wasn’t entirely sure if she had a good case after Voice of America reporter Steve Herman, who was riding in the motorcade, captured her one-finger salute and posted it on social media. The photo went viral, Briskman was fired, and it felt like the whole country was either with her or her bosses.
After all, how different is her case from the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who were fired after being seen at the rally in Charlottesville? Weren’t they simply expressing their First Amendment right, as odious and dangerous as their views are?
Or all the sexual harassers who haven’t been prosecuted in court but were deemed too toxic for their companies?
Our right to free speech may protect us from punishment by the government, but it’s not clear whether it protects our jobs when our bosses don’t like how we behave.
But Briskman’s legal team of Maria Simon and Rebecca Geller argue there is a big difference in Briskman’s case.
“Akima’s actions — forcing Juli to resign out of fear of unlawful retaliation by the government — violated the basic tenets of Virginia employment law,” Simon said. (Full disclosure: Simon is married to Washington Post Outlook editor Adam Kushner).
See, Briskman’s bosses didn’t take a moral stand against her action. They didn’t worry that an obscene gesture offends her fellow employees or sullies the good name of her company.
I wasn’t successful in reaching anyone at Akima for comment. But the firm is a government contractor, and it made it clear to Briskman that it was worried about retaliation from this administration.
“Defendant forced plaintiff to resign for the stated reasons that the photograph of her would have an adverse effect on its ability to obtain government contracts,” the lawsuit said.
Never mind that you can’t even tell in the photo that it’s Briskman. Never mind that no one at Akima knew she was the woman in the photo until she told them. And never mind that another employee was awful online and wasn’t fired.
See, that guy — a senior director of operations at Akima who clearly identifies himself with the company on his social media account — used that account to write “You’re a f----ing Libtard ---hole” on a Facebook discussion about Black Lives Matter.
That guy was allowed to delete the comment and keep his job. Why? You could speculate it’s because he’s a man and a senior director. But when you look at the cases side-by-side, no one at Akima was afraid that Black Lives Matter would retaliate against them. But they feared the target of Briskman’s action — the Trump administration — would.
“Working for a company that does business with the federal government should provide you with greater opportunities, but it should never limit your ability to criticize that government in your private time,” Briskman said in a statement. “The actions of my company were swift and unexpected. It is un-American to let the government use your own tax dollars to buy your off-duty obedience.”
It’s also the way business is done in countries with fewer freedoms, said Cameron Kistler, who works with Protect Democracy, a nonprofit organization that also helped work on Briskman’s case.
It’s called “autocratic capture” he said. And it happens in countries like Turkey, Russia, Egypt, Hungary, and Thailand, where the private sector helps silence dissent because it’s good for business, Kistler said.
“There’s no reason to believe that it cannot happen here as well,” he said, “and we should be particularly worried about autocratic capture in Virginia, where so many businesses rely on government contracts.”
So what does Briskman want from her lawsuit? Her job back?
Nah, she’s good. The 50-year-old single mother of two teens has been flooded with job offers since her firing.
But when they forced her out, Akima promised four weeks of severance pay — but only gave her two.
So she’d like those two weeks they promised, thank you. Plus attorney’s fees and interest, for a grand total of $2,692.30.
Oh, and she wants something else. Freedom of speech. For everyone.
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