Sticks and stonesWritten by Karl Rundgren | | firstname.lastname@example.org
When I first told people I had been asked to write a column for Toledo Free Press, many had the same response: “You’re going to get yourself fired.”
Someone probably should have said that to Crystal Dixon.
Until recently, Dixon was the associate vice president of human resources for the University of Toledo, a position that earned her more than $130,000 per year. But both the job and the salary went by the wayside after she wrote a single column for Toledo Free Press. It didn’t even run in the print edition, but rather as an on-line exclusive.
You may have read all this before, but here’s the background: Editor in Chief Michael S. Miller recently wrote a column supporting gay rights, and Dixon felt compelled to respond on the record. “As a Black woman,” she wrote, “I take great umbrage at the notion that those choosing the homosexual lifestyle are ‘civil rights victims.’ Here’s why. I cannot wake up tomorrow and not be a Black woman.”
It’s an honest opinion, and one that many share. Former presidential candidate John Kerry learned that firsthand when, during a 2004 campaign rally, he likened the Civil Rights Movement to the fight for gay rights. He was soundly rebuked. That being said, Dixon’s opinion is far from politically correct.
Dixon said she thought her column might stir some things up, but she never expected the firestorm that resulted.
Her bosses at UT felt that it presented a conflict with the school’s policies, so they offered her what she describes as a demotion and cut in pay. When she refused, she was fired.
I suspect that UT hoped its swift move would stifle any further debate on the issue. Instead, it fanned the flames. The story has grown exponentially, gaining international attention and casting Dixon as a champion of free speech. Now she’s planning on suing her former employer, claiming they violated her First Amendment rights.
Still, other groups feel that UT did the right thing in firing Dixon. Equality Toledo, a group that petitions for gay rights in our area, equated Dixon’s column with a “homophobic rant” and supported the university’s decision to let her go.
Gay rights have always been a hot-button topic in Northwest Ohio, but this debate has crescendoed into something even more controversial and, fundamentally, American. Should a business be able to fire an employee because he or she has publicly disagreed with the official company line? Does a person’s right to free speech end at their employer’s door?
These are questions I asked myself when I first agreed to share my opinions in these columns. I also found, after some reflection, that I can be fired for saying something that ultimately damages my employer.
I have some very strong and occasionally controversial opinions, so I try to temper my columns. When that fails, the people I ask to edit them help me recognize grandiose statements that could get me in trouble. But I’m in a unique circumstance. My primary job is still as a broadcaster — a fair and impartial source of news and information. If I were to reveal too many personal opinions, I could jeopardize that impartiality and ultimately damage my credibility.
That could lower ratings, and even lead to protests against FOX Toledo. Since I willingly signed a contract precluding activity that could harm my employer, it would be very easy for me to end up in Crystal Dixon’s position — all because of one column.
So I write with care.
It will be interesting to see what happens to Crystal Dixon as her case progresses — to see if this termination is legally deemed a violation of her First Amendment rights.
In the meantime, it leaves me to wonder, “Can free speech‚ ever truly come without a price?”
Karl Rundgren is managing editor and co-anchor of FOX Toledo News.