A rule that was used to justify the firing of former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran has been determined to be unconstitutional by a federal judge. The rule, which required employees to get pre-clearance from the city before engaging in certain kinds of personal expression, was ruled by the judge to infringe on First Amendment rights. However, the court also ruled in the city's favor on other points, saying that there had not been discrimination based on religion in the firing, and that the city did not retaliate against Chief Cochran.
Source: Associated Press, December 20, 2017
Gossip as Harassment
Andrea Schultz was a firefighter with the Greater Naples Fire Rescue Department in Florida for ten years, during which time she rose to the rank of captain. According to a recently filed lawsuit, she was also subjected to systemic harassment and retaliation in the form of false accusations during her time with the department, which ultimately led to her termination.
Among a number of complaints in the lawsuit are claims that Schultz was subjected to malicious gossip during her time on the department. Specifically, she states that her superiors falsely accused her of sexual impropriety every time she was alone with any male firefighter or officer. When she complained about these accusations and other issues, such as unwanted physical contact, she claims the department opened unwarranted investigations into her alleged actions, and later placed her on administrative leave. While on leave, Schultz says that the department began a smear campaign against her, trying to elicit statements from her coworkers that she was engaged in extramarital affairs.
The full truth of this case will come out in trial, but all women firefighters know the frustration and helplessness of dealing with workplace gossip against them. It's the easiest way to harass someone-- you only have to make up a tantalizing story, tell it to a few people, and let the rumor mill do the rest. For those who are already marginalized at work with few allies, such rumors can quickly take on a life of their own and be very hard to combat.
The problem is in proving a negative. It's like the old trick question of "Are you still beating your wife?" Both denial or affirmation are bad for the person responding. So it is with trying to fight against gossip. A person ends up on the defensive in all circumstances, trying to prove that nothing happened, trying to claim virtue against accusers who feel no responsibility to prove similar virtue in making the accusations.
It's a lose-lose situation. And when unchecked, it will most often end up as this situation has, with the loss of an experienced worker, a department divided, and the potential for big losses of both money and reputation for the organization and its larger jurisdiction.
Source: Andrea Schultz v. Greater Naples Fire Rescue District, US District Court, Middle District of Florida, Fort Myers Division.
© Linda F. Willing, 2017