Reprimand to be removed from file of state employee critical of gay pride celebration

Wednesday, May 12, 1999

The State of Minnesota recently agreed to remove a reprimand from the personnel file of a health department employee who sent e-mails criticizing the department for celebrating “Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Month” in June 1997.

In May 1997, Eric Brown and other health department employees received a series of e-mail messages — sent by the state director of workplace diversity — encouraging them to visit the “Pride” display in the lobby of their building. The e-mails also asked health department employees to attend activities, such as the showing of a video entitled “The Celebration of Pride,” during the month.

Brown, a chemist's aide in the organics unit of the health department's chemical laboratory, responded by sending e-mail messages stating his religious objections to homosexuality.

In June 1997, Brown received a written reprimand warning him that any further communication on the topic would “be grounds for further disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment.”

With assistance from the American Center for Law and Justice, Brown filed a lawsuit against the Minnesota Health Department, alleging his First Amendment rights were being violated.

In March 1999, a U.S. District judge ruled that health department officials “cannot suppress employee expression on a public concern simply because the views expressed are deeply offensive or contradict the department's stated position.”

After the ruling, the two sides began negotiating a settlement. The health department agreed to remove the reprimand from Brown's file, expunging all references to the incident, and to cover the legal expenses he had incurred during the suit.

“This is an important victory for free speech in the workplace,” said Francis J. Manion, the American Center for Law and Justice attorney who handled the case. “The law is clear that government employees have the right to express their opinions on matters of public concern. We are very pleased that we were able to safeguard the free speech rights of our client.

“We are seeing these kinds of cases — where employees are punished for exercising their free-speech rights by criticizing employers' involvement in controversial issues — pop up all over the country,” Manion said.