Live Oak prosecutor fired for speaking to tea party, others
It weighs right to free speech against employer protecting office’s integrity.Posted: May 24, 2010 – 7:36pm
By Paul Pinkham
An assistant state attorney in Live Oak was fired Monday after she refused to stop speaking to tea party rallies and other groups, her boss said.
Prosecutor KrisAnne Hall asked a federal judge Friday for a ruling that would have allowed her to keep speaking and prevented her boss, State Attorney Skip Jarvis, from following through on threats to fire her if she didn’t stop.
Courtroom arguments on that request hadn’t been scheduled by Monday afternoon, when Jarvis said he fired Hall shortly after receiving a copy of her federal complaint.
He called her a good prosecutor, who crossed an ethical line with her speeches and radio appearances.
“You can’t take a job advocating for the state and go out and take a position against the state,” Jarvis said. “I advised her from my first learning of her activity that she was free to say and do whatever she desired within the law, but she could not do so while assistant counsel for the state.”
Hall, 40, said she spoke about the original intent of the U.S. Constitution, smaller government, budget deficits and Florida’s lawsuit against health care reform. Describing herself as a disabled Army veteran, she said all are federal issues she’s passionate about.
“I never said anything bad about the state. I never said anything bad about Mr. Jarvis,” said Hall. “I love being an assistant state attorney, [but] I’m not ready to give up on my constitutional rights.”
Now instead of an injunction, she and her lawyer plan to amend their complaint to sue Jarvis for retaliatory conduct.
“To fire someone over their political views doesn’t set well with most folks,” said her attorney, Gary Edinger of Gainesville.
Jarvis said he first learned of Hall’s activities last month from a constituent after she spoke at tea party gatherings in North Florida and on a Lake City radio station.
“They were confronting me about my office being used to legitimize what they consider to be a fringe right-wing group,” Jarvis wrote in an e-mail attached to Hall’s lawsuit. “I hate to do this, but I have to ask you to disassociate yourself from these folks.”
Hall responded that she was speaking on her own time and was careful not to be introduced as an assistant state attorney. She said she spoke in response to a request to help educate people about the Constitution.
Nevertheless, Jarvis responded that she was identified as an assistant state attorney and had to stop. After several more e-mail exchanges, she replied that he was being unfair.
“Even when I was in the military, restrictions on my constitutional rights were never so unreasonable,” she said. “… I fought for these rights in the military, and as a sworn officer, I am sworn to defend them.”
The e-mails were followed by a letter from Edinger to Jarvis, warning about a potential lawsuit and challenging the state attorney’s view that Hall’s activities were in any way disruptive to the State Attorney’s Office.
Jarvis responded by letter, also attached to the lawsuit, noting that his assistants serve as appointed representatives of the state and do so knowing their outside activities have boundaries.
“She has been given a directive and now must decide whether her desire to speak outweighs her desire to retain my appointment,” Jarvis wrote May 10. “It is her decision.”
The issue balances free speech rights and a public employer’s desire to protect the integrity of the workplace, according to labor and First Amendment lawyers contacted by the Times-Union.
Lawyer Ed Birk said an elected state attorney can weigh whether an assistant’s comments impair the public’s perception of the office.
“There’s a legitimate interest of the state attorney to operate the office in a way that instills public confidence, so there are limitations he or she can put on the assistants,” said Birk, who has several media clients. “The rule is generally does the employee’s public conduct interfere with the proper operation of the office.”
In a small community, Birk said, prosecutors often are easily recognizable, and people will naturally associate an assistant state attorney’s public comments with the office she works for.
But labor lawyer Tad Delegal said Hall has a legitimate First Amendment claim if she was speaking on her own time and her expressed viewpoints weren’t associated with her official duties.