|Dilbert and Scott Adams (NPR)|
As a longtime fan of Dilbert, I'm distressed to see the comic strip disappearing at a rapid rate from American newspapers. That comes after creator Scott Adams went on an ill-advised, racist, and downright stupid online rant -- calling Black people a "hate group" and advising White people to "get the hell away from Black people." Some commentators have interpreted that last line as supporting a return to segregation.
I have fallen out of touch with Dilbert in recent years, but I still consider it, at its best, to be one of the funniest and most insightful comic strips ever created. I got the sense a few years back that, away from the drawing board, Adams leans pretty far to the right politically. (That's his business, of course, and I had never seen any signs that he was a racist. I've learned in recent days that Adams has made insensitive race-based remarks in the past, so perhaps this problem has been brewing for a while. I've also read in recent days that some readers, even hard-core fans and some media professionals, feel the Dilbert comic strip has been in decline, that it's not as funny as it once was. The general theme seems to be that the strip has become less about the workplace characters and more about Scott Adams' views on current and political events, which have drained the strip of its charm.
In general, I've found Adams work to be thoughtful and amusing and had been a fan prior to the current ugliness. Heck, I've probably read more than a dozen of his books -- including compilations of his comic strips and a number of books on non- Dilbert topics. (business, psychology, failure, positive thinking, etc.) One of my favorites was The Dilbert Future, about Adams' practice of writing daily affirmations.
Unfortunately, the current controversy might bring an end to an otherwise rousing media success story. But Adams did not just step into a cow pile of his own making. In trying to talk his way back into good favor, he displayed a misunderstanding of free speech -- and probably added to a general lack of understanding about the First Amendment and work-related issues, which probably has been present in American society for decades.
Apparently thinking he could joke his way out of trouble, Adams took to Twitter and wrote: "Has anyone checked the price of free speech lately? It's worse than eggs." That might have made matters worse because it suggested that Adams could use a refresher course on free speech and the workplace.
That's a topic that resonates deeply here at Legal Schnauzer because, as longtime readers know, I was cheated out of my job at UAB (after 19 years at the university, 20 counting accrued leave time) because of content on my blog about the political prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman. Use of the word "cheated" is not just sour grapes on my part; it's simple fact. A UAB Human Resources official named Anita Bonasera told me in a telephone conversation, which I recorded, that my supervisor, Pam Powell targeted me (and only me -- none of the other dozen or so employees in the Publications Office) because of content about the Siegelman case on my blog, which I wrote on my own time and with my own -- or public (as in a public library near my house) equipment.
My experience at UAB was so bizarre that it attracted news coverage from Raw Story, Harper's, The Chronicle of Higher Education. and OpEd News (five-part series), plus radio interviews with Thom Hartmann and Peter B. Collins.
What was strange about UAB's behavior in my case? The oddities were so voluminous that I can't begin to go into detail with today's post. But here are some "lowlights," and given the complexity and importance of First Amendment law, I suspect we will broach this subject in one or more future posts:
(1) UAB managers could not seem to make up their mind what I had actually done wrong. I know that I did not violate the law or UAB policy, but to this day, I'm not clear what managers thought I had done wrong. First, they seemed to claim that I was writing my blog at work. Then, it seemed to change to this: Oh, he was "researching his blog at work. Finally, they seemed to settle on this: I was insubordinate and neglectful of my duties. And they might have thrown in "inordinate use of a UAB computer for personal matters." It was so confusing that I'm still not sure what I was even accused of. Mainly, I shouldn't have been accused of anything because I did not do any of the things UAB managers hinted at. My grievance hearing produced no evidence that I ever disobeyed my supervisor, and all of my projects were on schedule, so maybe that's why UAB could not make up its mind about falsely accusing me of . . . something/anything, to borrow a term from Todd Rundgren.
(2) I do know this: (a) I had a right under UAB policy to seek a grievance hearing (before fellow UAB employees), and I sat through the whole process. Committee members repeatedly asked Powell to provide documentation to support her allegations against me, and she provided nothing.After a UAB IT guy named Sean Maher said I had never written anything on my blog from my work computer, a committee member, looking exasperated, said, "Why are we here?"
(3) Under UAB policy, an employee is to use the grievance process without fear of reprisal or retaliation. What happened to me? After 20 years on the job (five years away from retirement), I was fired without warning. Even if some of UAB's allegations were true -- and they weren't -- UAB policy called for, at most, a verbal warning, under the university's progressive discipline procedure. You can scour the UAB Employee Handbook for days and not find a clause supporting immediate termination in a situation like mine. So much for using the grievance policy without fear of retaliation.
(4) Here is maybe the most stunning turn of events. UAB HR director Cheryl E.H. Locke informed me that the grievance committee found I should not have been terminated. But Locke, who did not even attend the grievance hearing, made a unilateral decision to offer me a new position, in an unknown department under an unknown supervisor, and at unspecified pay. And I would be forced to make that move with two written warnings in my file, in "lieu of termination." I knew UAB policy called for an employee to automatically be fired with three written warnings, so I told Locke, "This sounds like I'm being set up to be fired all over again."And Locke didn't deny it, saying any such decisions would be up to the new supervisor. It did not take me long to reject that proposal, so Locke went against her own committee and terminated my employment. Also, I asked Locke for a copy of the grievance committee's written report, and she refused to give me one. I was left to take Locke's word for what the committee actually decided -- and at that point, Locke's word was the equivalent of a soiled napkin to me.
(5) A final note, for now, about my UAB case: I'm convinced my termination had nothing to do with any of the allegations made against me. One, there was no evidence that any of the allegations were true. Many of UAB's actions were nonsensical, deceptive, or both. For example, why did the university want to move me out of my old department, even though a grievance committee, found I should not have been terminated, and I have no evidence they thought I should be disciplined at all? I can think of only one reason: Managers were concerned that someone in my old department (perhaps accidentally) would spill the beans to me about what really happened. I was on good terms with all of my former co-workers -- even with Pam Powell, most of the time -- and it's certainly possible some of them knew why UAB knifed me in the back, and in the course of daily conversation, might have let it slip why I was put through hell for no work-related reason.
Bottom line: I know for sure that I was targeted because of my reporting on the Siegelman case; HR employee Anita Bonsera admitted that to me. As one of the few successful Democrats left in Alabama, Siegelman has no shortage of enemies on the right (Richard Shelby, Jeff Sessions, Bill Pryor, Luther Strange, Bob Riley, etc.) Riley was governor at the time, with Siegelman as his chief opponent, so I long have suspected someone close to the Riley family engineered my termination -- for writing in support of Siegelman and with criticism of Riley. Plus, I received an anomymous comment at this blog threatening my job, not long before I was fired, and that sounds like something a person close to the Rileys would do.
That brings us back to Dilbert, Scott Adams, and his lack of understanding about free speech. The unfortunate fact is this: The First Amendment is not as protective as many Americans think it is.
Tom Spiggle, of the Spiggle Law Firm in Arlington, VA, fills us in on the law:
First Amendment protections only apply to government workers. So, if you work for the federal government, or, for instance, a sheriff's office, you have First Amendment rights. If you work in the private sector, you don't have any constitutional free-speech rights. In many, perhaps most, instances, a private employer can legally fire an employee for his or her speech, no matter the content
What does that mean for our story? One, I was a State of Alabama employee, a government worker, writing about matters of public concern (not on UAB time, nor with UAB equipment.) I had First Amendment protection. Two, Scott Adams is not a government worker, and a court probably would find that a racist rant does not qualify as commentary on a matter of public concern. So, Scott Adams is not protected by the First Amendment, something important to consider if he starts thinking about litigation. Yes, Adams has the "free- speech" right to launch a vile, even racist rant. But newspapers, syndication companies, and the public at large has the right to seek distance from him.
One more important point about the Adams case: In the first paragraph, I called his rant "stupid," and here's why I used that term -- and Slate explains why that word fits -- under the headline "The Poll That Did in Dilbert Creator Scott Adams Is Even Dumber Than You Can Imagine." Writes reporter Aymann Ismail:
On the Feb. 22 episode of Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ podcast and nightly YouTube livestream, Real Coffee with Scott Adams, he began his hour-long show like he always does, by inviting his audience for a ceremonious “simultaneous sip.”* He went on with his standard fare—a handful of headlines accompanied by his quick takes—until he steered to a “provocative” new Rasmussen poll.
“They said, ‘Do you agree with or disagree with the statement “It’s OK to be white”?’ ” Adams reported. He paused and looked directly into the camera. “That was an actual question.”
Adams read the result of the Rasmussen poll: “47 percent of Black respondents were not willing to say it’s OK to be white. That’s actually—that’s, like, a real poll,” he said.
The rest you’ve probably already seen clipped online: “If nearly half of all Blacks are not OK with white people—according to this poll, not according to me,” he said, “that’s a hate group.” He added that white people should “get the hell away from Black people.” Adams later tried to walk back his comments as misunderstood—“everyone should be treated as an individual,” he said in another episode of his show—but not before hundreds of newspapers committed to dropping his strip and his publisher killed a planned book.
Adams clearly is not a stupid guy, so how did he fall for something so dumb? Writes Ismail:Rasmussen said 13 percent of poll respondents were Black, so about 130 people. If we take the results entirely at face value—which I’d discourage—that means it found about 34 Black people who answered “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with the statement “It’s OK to be white.” We have no more information about why. (Adams got to his figure by also including Black respondents who answered “not sure.”)
As Rasmussen surely knows, the phrase “It’s OK to be white” is a right-wing troll that originated in the forums of 4chan. As The Washington Post chronicled in 2017, the term was originally intended as a covert way to force an overreaction from progressives, including liberal journalists, if it started to spread, which in turn would show that “lefties” hate white people. Soon, signs bearing the slogan did crop up on campuses and other places around the country. The hysteria never arrived, but . . . the Anti-Defamation League marked the phrase a “hate slogan”—reasonably, given that it was white supremacists (most notably David Duke) who ran with the 4chan prank in the first place.
Rasmussen apparently assumed its audience would be too stupid to know any of that, and in the case of Scott Adams, it was clearly right. Perhaps some of the people Rasmussen polled were aware of the history of the phrase, which at one point made it into a Tucker Carlson monologue; it’s hard to say, and Rasmussen didn’t care to ask. But the whole charade seemed clearly designed to end up on shows like Adams’, where it purported to become a referendum on whether or not Black Americans hate white people. Better pollsters would tell you that if you really wanted to assess Americans’ views on race, as the Pew Research Center has done well, you would avoid terms with strong political associations like “it’s OK to be white,” or even “Black Lives Matter.” That is far from what happened here.