No question about it. Juli Briskman's frustration and anger is widely shared by a lot of folks. Most, however, are not likely to express their emotions in the very public way that she chose. Juli is the woman who held up her middle finger in an obscene salute directed at President Trump’s motorcade. She was riding her bicycle two weeks ago in Virginia as the presidential motorcade passed her. She explained to Huff Post, “My blood just started to boil.” She angrily flipped the bird at the passing motorcade a couple of times, and a photographer traveling with the convoy snapped her picture. She said she was thinking, “DACA recipients are getting kicked out, He pulled advertising for open enrollment in Obamacare. Only one third of Puerto Rico has power. I’m thinking he’s at the damn golf course again.”
The photo of her flipping the bird went viral. Late night comedians joked about it. And Juli posted it as her profile picture on Twitter and Facebook. She knew how to post for maximum attention because she led her company’s social media. Her middle finger tribute quickly became water cooler buzz on and offline. She thought it best to alert her company’s human resources department, and after she did, Akama LLC fired her saying, “we cannot have lewd or obscene things in your social media.” Akama is a large contracting firm, and officials said her actions could jeopardize their government contracts.
Juli’s firing stirred public support online and more conversation about free speech at work and what constitutes a violation of that speech. Once again, the right to free speech means you can’t be arrested by the government for mouthing off or in this case flipping off. It doesn’t guarantee you don’t suffer consequences for your actions. This confusion is at the core of the ongoing heated discourse about former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling to protest racial inequities. But, as I’ve noted “Colin Kaepernick knows better than anybody that his free speech gave him the right to protest, but not the right to a job in the NFL.” By the way, his lawsuit against NFL owners’ charges blackballing, not violation of free speech. For sure, I want some of the verbal flame throwers stirring up racist and sexist comments to be denied their right to free speech. But it doesn’t work that way. They have a right to speak, which I will defend. That doesn’t mean I’m not delighted when they suffer consequences beyond their constitutional protection. Like the several torch light carrying self-described white supremacists in Charlottesville who lost their jobs after being identified as participants.
Curiously, another Akima employee somehow kept his job after he posted lewd comments on his Facebook page using three words I cannot say on the air. It’s unclear why there is a discrepancy between the two company actions. Company officials have refused media requests to explain.
Juli Briskman now understands what Colin Kaepernick knows — exercising your right to free speech is often personally costly. Juli’s friends started a GoFundMe campaign to tide her over during unemployment — $20,000 raised in the first two days. She’s looking for a new job whose mission aligns with her advocacy. She says she’s “appalled” about the direction of the country. But gratified that her spontaneous gesture resonated with the millions of others who’ve suppressed their anger and frustration.