The First Amendment keeps government from infringing on a person’s right to make outrageous statements. It protects the right to insult cops, to blaspheme the president or pope and to burn sacred texts. It does not protect a person’s job, whether it’s a government job or a private-sector job.
Miriam Leverington is likely to learn this important limitation of free speech once more, after a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals rules on her case. The panel heard arguments Monday in Denver.
Leverington’s problem began when she threatened Colorado Springs policeman Duaine Peters, who stopped her for speeding in December of 2008. Leverington works for the city’s Memorial Health System as a cardiac nurse. She was angry about the ticket, so she told Peters this: “I hope you are not ever my patient.”
The statement implies she would retaliate against the officer, who was merely doing his job, by giving him substandard service at the hospital. If Peters ever needed Leverington’s help, perhaps she would let him die.
The threat exudes an expectation by Leverington that cops should give special treatment to city employees — especially those whom they might need someday in a crisis.
Leverington was fired because the comment was obnoxious, rude, unprofessional and horrible on several fronts. She didn’t deny the comment. Far from it. Leverington defended her right to make the comment and filed a lawsuit.
She has the right to address a cop with an obnoxious, unprofessional, slightly veiled threat of delayed revenge for a ticket. She has the right because she cannot be jailed for it. She has the right because she cannot be forcefully restrained from making a comment of that sort. She cannot be fined for it or given a special audit by the IRS. She has a right to call a cop some disgusting epithet, in fact, without losing her freedom.
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But Leverington does not have a right to work at a hospital. Her job, like any other, was merely a privilege that was hers to maintain. It was a privilege that extended only to a person of impeccable character whom the community could trust to help anyone in need of cardiac care. The moment nurse Leverington revealed herself to a fellow city employee as someone with a propensity to act like an ill-behaved child, who would exploit her status to avoid a ticket, she put her career at risk. That’s because the First Amendment does not protect our privileges against outrageous expressions.
Free speech does not and should not require employers, public or private, to tolerate all forms of speech by employees. An employee has a right to burn a flag without going to jail or losing freedoms as a result. But a job isn’t a fundamental freedom or a right. So one who flagrantly burns a flag, or a bible or a quran, may well be fired as a result.
Leverington should have learned this lesson when U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch dismissed her free speech claim as baseless. Let’s hope she learns it with a correct decision by the 10th Circuit panel. Taxpayers shouldn’t employ a cardiac nurse who mouths off to cops.