Should Public Officials Shut Up?

When Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich fired one of his Washington Metro transit authority board members for calling homosexuality “deviant” on TV, a brush fire of social controversy was quickly extinguished. Or was it?

On a public access program discussing gay marriage, board member Robert Smith said, “Homosexual behavior, in my view, is deviant. I’m a Roman Catholic.” Governor Ehrlich called Smith’s comments “highly inappropriate, insensitive and unacceptable.” All of which is true, perhaps, except that last term, as conservative columnist John Leo argues.

While Ehrlich was likely tossing out a string of adjectives that even we would have, Leo calls the governor on his “unacceptable” label.

Did he mean that all members of Washington-area boards are required to approve of homosexuality, or just that they must suppress any non-positive views during TV discussions of same-sex marriage? The governor, a Republican who is up for re-election and is trying to move from the right to the center, clearly hasn’t thought the issue through. He certainly seems to be banishing Smith for a thought crime. Perhaps he did so because he knew his Democratic opponents would come after him for tolerating “hate speech” if he let Smith stay on. Smith argues that his social opinions have “absolutely nothing to do with running trains and buses” and that they haven’t affected his actions or decisions on the board.

Maybe it’s not a good idea for government transit specialists to be pronouncing on divisive social issues. But they clearly have a right to do so. The Supreme Court says the First Amendment protects the right of public employees and appointees to speak freely on matters of public concern. So if Smith wants to sue over his firing, he seems likely to win. At any rate, liberals routinely argue that people should not be fired for behavior or speech unrelated to their jobs, such as professors who make loony remarks out of class, or schoolteachers who have children out of wedlock.

Now don’t think we’ve jumped over to the right wing; we haven’t. But Leo does raise a good point: Should we force our public officials to stay mum on their personal feelings, under the threat of firing, if they go against the grain? If they’re performing their job well, does it matter what belief system they subscribe to?

Yes, perhaps. Racist officials in charge of distributing funding to community groups could deny funding to black organizations. Anti-semetic officials in charge of assigning construction projects could skip over Weisberg Construction in favor of Botelli. But when it comes to homophobic officials, they’ve got one thing on their sides: sexual orientation is not yet a protected class.