If we are learning anything during the Trump presidency, it’s that free speech is not always free, particularly on the job or in commerce.
You hear stories of people who marched alongside neo-Nazis at a parade being exposed and fired from jobs. Or people being canned for inappropriate or offensive posts on social media. Last week Club Jager closed after it was disclosed that its owner contributed to a political bid by former Ku Klux Klan member David Duke.
But what does it say about the political temperament of America when an argument over politics gets a senior citizen volunteer fired from the Minnesota Zoo?
Hunter “Bill” Way was dismissed from his position recently at the zoo in Apple Valley, where he had volunteered every Wednesday for the past seven years. He said it was an unfair termination after an argument with a superior over President Donald Trump, followed months later by an exchange of e-mails.
It started just after Trump won the election. According to Way, he got into an argument with a volunteer supervisor. Way said the supervisor made a comment that Trump’s win was, to paraphrase, the greatest thing to happen in this country.
Way is not a Trump fan, to put it mildly. Way’s son has converted to Islam, and Way is a fervent believer in civil rights. Trump’s speeches, filled with inflammatory references against the religion, and against minorities in general, frightened and angered Way, 63. He said he responded emotionally.
“I lost it,” he said in an interview this week.
“The first thing, I’m not lily white on this,” said Way. “I supposedly called [the volunteer supervisor] a racist, or said only a racist would vote for him.” Way said the supervisor alleged that he shook his cane during the brief encounter, and told him to calm down.
The next week, Way said, he was called into the office and told that if he became emotional again about politics, he’d be dismissed from his volunteer job.
“I understood,” said Way. “I apologized.”
Months passed without incident, though for much of that time Way was unable to work because of a couple of hospitalizations.
In August, the volunteer supervisor — who served as Way’s “day captain” — wrote him an e-mail acknowledging they had butted heads but asking how he was doing. Way responded to questions of his health and wrote that he looked forward to returning to the zoo, but added: “You mentioned our differences in your last e-mail. I will only say this. More than ever since Charlottesville I fear for this country and what 45 is doing to it.”
Another contentious e-mail back-and-forth followed, Way said, with accusations about leftists and the media, Nazis and World War II flying in both directions. Way finished up by writing: “I am growing up. I’m moving on. I love the Zoo. I love Volunteering.”
Way asked to be moved to another day so that he and the supervisor would not be working together. He said he was told there would likely be Trump supporters on any other day, and that he might be tempted to engage them on politics. He took that to mean they had the right to talk politics, but he didn’t.
Sheri White Commers, the zoo’s volunteer programs manager, cited Way’s “temper and how it creates fear,” and informed Way he was no longer a volunteer.
“Why is it that I can’t express my feelings and beliefs and the other person can?” Way asked me.
Josh Le, media manager for the zoo, said volunteers are not prohibited from political conversations. The problem was Way’s tone and volume. He said a Trump voter who exhibited similar “harassing” language would be treated exactly the same.
Steve Heikens, an employment attorney, said such workplace arguments “are much more widespread” than they have been. “I’ve not had cases personally, but I’m reading about them around the country,” he said.
If this had happened at a private company, Way certainly would have no recourse, even as an employee. Even repeating some words Trump has said publicly could get people fired. The zoo is publicly owned, so he would have more protection for free speech, though it’s unclear what remediation a volunteer would have since they are not being paid.
“When it becomes a true distraction, they have a right to remove him,” said Heikens. “But if he didn’t have any incidents for a while, it shows [the behavior] was not inherent in him.”
If the zoo disciplined people on only one side of a political issue, Heikens said there could be a civil rights violation.
Way would just like another shot to explain himself and return to the zoo. He realizes it’s unlikely. “I’ve learned my lesson,” he said. “I am somebody who is passionate about treating people decently.”
But if he hears people being racist or promoting hate, “you can’t just walk away and ignore them.”