Three days later, I lost my job.
A wire service photographer covering Trump captured the gesture, and a Voice of America reporter posted the photo online. It went viral. The next evening, I used the photo as the background on my personal Facebook and Twitter accounts, neither of which mentioned where I worked. But after the weekend, I did let my employer, Akima, know that I was the cyclist in the picture.
While acknowledging that the First Amendment protected my right to extend my middle finger, my boss told me that “corporate protection” dictated that he terminate me on the grounds of a social media policy that prohibits “obscene” or “inappropriate” content. Akima does business with the government, and company executives obviously feared that the Trump administration would (unconstitutionally) penalize my employer for my gesture. So, that Tuesday, they forced me out.
The First Amendment bars retaliation against me by Trump. But Trump doesn’t need to punish me for my speech if fear of him spurs my employer to do it. And a private employer can’t suppress my freedom of expression on my own time out of fear of illegal government retaliation without violating Virginia employment law, which is why I filed a lawsuit against my former employer this week.
I am not alone in having my ability to make a living threatened by my desire to exercise my right to free speech. No one who follows football thinks that all 50 quarterbacks signed by NFL teams in the past year are more talented than Colin Kaepernick. The president’s relentless attacks on Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem created an environment in which many teams were reluctant to sign him and risk a backlash that could hurt their bottom line. Now Eric Reid, one of the first to join Kaepernick’s protest, is facing speculation that the salary he can draw as a free agent is reduced because he engaged in political dissent.
These are the stories that have made news, but this facilitation of speech suppression is creeping throughout the private sector. Take, for example, Protect Democracy, the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization helping me bring my lawsuit. Members of the group have told me that their mission — preventing a slide to a more authoritarian form of government — has made it difficult for them to rent office space in Cambridge, Mass.; landlords, they say, fear retaliation from the federal government.
This sort of behavior is familiar to people living in Egypt, Hungary, Thailand, Turkey and Russia, where the ability to do business increasingly depends on being seen as favorable to the regime. As a result, companies in each of these countries do not hire or do business with known dissenters. And that pressure — making citizens choose between their pocketbooks and their principles — starts a downward spiral that ultimately dismantles a democracy.
Let’s call this “autocratic capture.” Autocratic capture is not new to the world, but it is new to this country, and it is up to all of us to keep it from taking root. Our democracy depends on it. As James Madison warned in the early days of the United States, the “value and efficacy” of free elections “depends” on Americans’ “equal freedom” to examine the “merits and demerits of the candidates.” But if Americans can keep their jobs only when they refrain from criticizing the president, then that freedom is lost. And once the freedom to speak is lost, then the rest of our constitutional rights will not be far behind.