Metro Board Member Fired for Views on Homosexuality
Today’s Examiner editorial on free speech and political correctness begins with an anecdote:
Robert Smith, Roman Catholic and now-former Metro board member, believes homosexuality is a form of “deviancy.” Jim Graham, District of Columbia Council member, believes Smith’s beliefs are “ancient and archaic.” Graham’s views cost him nothing. Smith’s cost him his job.
Graham and Smith’s now-former boss, Maryland Gov. Bob Erhlich, should have said something like this: “I repudiate Smith’s views and find them disgusting, but it’s a free country and he can say whatever he thinks about any issue.” In a culture increasingly dominated by political correctness, however, such remarks would be derided.
So we have a fundamental issue: freedom of speech for Jim, but not for Bob. Thus the state of health of the First Amendment: You can say anything you want so long as it is politically correct. That’s the definition of “tolerance” practiced by officials like Graham, Erhlich and by many among America’s official and elite opinion-makers.
The firing fronted last Friday’s WaPo.
Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday fired Robert J. Smith, his appointee on the Metro transit authority board, for referring to gay people as sexual deviants on a cable television show. “Robert Smith’s comments were highly inappropriate, insensitive and unacceptable,” Ehrlich (R) said in a statement less than five hours after the controversy erupted during a Metro board meeting. “They are in direct conflict to my administration’s commitment to inclusiveness, tolerance and opportunity.”
Smith said he has always supported the transit agency’s policy against all forms of discrimination.
Asked whether he planned to apologize to Graham after Graham said the remarks were offensive, Smith replied: “I didn’t make the comments to Mr. Graham. . . . I’m sorry he feels that way. I don’t agree that his lifestyle is an appropriate way to lead one’s life.”
Smith’s comments drew an immediate negative reaction from Dennis Jaffe, chairman of the Riders Advisory Council, who has been working with Smith the past several months on a committee to improve MetroAccess, the transit service for the disabled. “I know how dedicated Bob Smith is, but his comments that homosexuals are sexual deviants are most unfortunate and reflect poorly on Metro as an agency,” Jaffe said.
Smith said he has been a regular panelist on the weekly political round-table show, “21 This Week,” telecast on Access Montgomery cable Channel 21, for the past 12 years. He appears as a “Republican activist,” according to Rodney Bryant, the show’s producer. On last weekend’s show, Smith interrupted another speaker who was talking about federalism and Vice President Cheney’s daughter. The speaker said Cheney’s daughter, who is a lesbian, would not want the government interfering in her life, according to a recording of that portion of the show. “That’s fine, that’s fine,” Smith interrupted. “But that doesn’t mean that government should proffer a special place of entitlement within the laws of the United States for persons of sexual deviancy.”
The Washington Blade, the District’s gay alternative paper, added,
Ehrlich’s decision to replace Smith, an architect and Republican Party activist from Montgomery County, came less than four hours after D.C. Council member Jim Graham demanded Smith’s resignation over the remark. Graham, who is gay, also serves on the Metro board and informed board members during a June 15 meeting that Smith used the term “sexual deviants” to describe gays during an appearance on a Montgomery County cable access television program the previous week. “As someone who cares deeply about human rights and as an openly gay elected official in the District of Columbia, I cannot remain silent in the face of these comments,” Graham said.
Graham startled his fellow board members and some of the nearly 100 people attending the June 15 meeting of the Metro board when he raised the issue of Smith’s remarks during a part of the meeting reserved for issues of concern to individual members.
Smith interrupted Graham by raising a point of order, saying the subject Graham brought up was not relevant to Metro business. Metro Board Chair Gladys Mack overruled Smith and allowed Graham to continue.
Asked by reporter after the meeting if he considered his remark to be bigoted, Smith said, “No, I don’t. I’m a Roman Catholic and I have certain views on homosexuality that people in this country don’t have. I respect that they have a different view. I have mine.”
Smith said he would not resign and would accept any decision Ehrlich makes on whether he should remain on the Metro board. “I serve at the pleasure of the secretary of transportation and the governor of the state of Maryland,” he said.
Eugene Volokh believes that, legally speaking, “Smith is the sort of high-level political appointee who can be fired for his speech — including off-the-job speech on matters of public concern — with no First Amendment constraints.” Still, he’s concerned that “the gay rights movement — which in many respects I support — has indeed led, and is likely to continue to lead, to nontrivial burdens on people who hold and express traditional religious views that condemn homosexuality.”
Ilya Somin, his VC colleague, agrees with Ehrlich’s action, arguing, “There is good reason to assume that a Metro Board member with Smith’s views would be less likely to enforce policies against antigay discrimination in public transport than one who is not a homophobe. At any rate, since there is unlikely to be a shortage of nonbigoted people willing to take this cushy patronage appointment, Governor Ehrlich was right not to take a risk on Smith.”
In the larger context of employment, I agree with the Examiner and Volokh that this firing raises legitimate free speech concerns. Further, as several commenters on Somin’s post, this has some serious anti-Catholic overtones in that it essentially says that government employees can be fired for echoing the views of the pope in a public forum in their capacity as private citizens.
In the particular case, though, Somin is right. Smith is a political appointee, which carries much less freedom than an ordinary government job because, as he himself correctly noted, “I serve at the pleasure of the secretary of transportation and the governor of the state of Maryland.” His views, therefore, reflect on Governor Ehrlich. It’s hardly unreasonable for a
government governor to get rid of a political appointee who is embarrassing him.