State horticulturist demoted after letter to editor

Monday, December 18, 2000

When he was an environmental horticulturist with the Virginia
Cooperative Extension Service, Dennis Bishop would field a lot of calls from
home gardeners asking what type of chemicals they could spray or apply to
overcome their pest or plant problems.

“One of the things that I did was answer phone calls about those
issues. I did that every day as part of my job. ‘I have Japanese beetles on my
roses; what should I spray?’ I would look it up in our guide book and recommend
it,” Bishop said in an interview.

But when he was not at his state job and on his own time, Bishop was
strictly chemical-free. Last August, Bishop wrote a letter to the editor of the
Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg,
Va., touting the benefits of organic farming. He identified himself as a
horticulturist in the letter but made no reference to the extension service or
his day job.

The letter was published Aug. 31, and on Sept. 11, Bishop was removed
from his job and reassigned to a six-month position that was “terminal,”
meaning it would end after that period.

Although Virginia Tech University, which houses the extension service,
insists that Bishop’s reassignment was a personnel matter relating to job
performance and had nothing to do with the letter, Bishop doesn’t believe it.
Neither does the Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, which
this week filed suit in U.S. District Court in Alexandria to get Bishop
reinstated in his former job, with back pay, damages and legal fees to

“On the job, I did what I was supposed to do. I followed the rules
there. But something about the letter really ticked somebody off,” said Bishop,
who resigned rather than accept the demotion and has since taken a lower-paying
job with the grounds crew at Mary Washington College.

In his letter to the editor of the Fredericksburg newspaper, Bishop
was responding to an earlier opinion piece that had criticized organic
gardening. Bishop said that chemical-enhanced agriculture is “doomed because it
has used and raped the Earth unceasingly without giving back.”

Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia ACLU, said the ACLU
believes the action was retaliatory because just a few weeks before the letter
was published, Bishop had received a “a glowing review of his job performance”
in his annual review.

“About that same time, he wrote a letter to the editor, he went on a
one-week vacation, and when he came back, he was told he no longer had his job.
When he asked why, they would not tell him,” Willis said.

Willis said that when the ACLU learned of Bishop’s case last fall, the
group wrote a letter suggesting that the demotion was due to Bishop’s letter to
the editor and asking for an explanation for the firing if that was not the
case. “They wrote back,” Willis said, but “we were never satisfied with the
explanation given by the state, so we proceeded with the lawsuit.”

Within hours of his removal from the environmental horticulturist job,
Bishop said, Virginia Tech had already begun to advertise his position.
Although the university has interviewed some candidates, the position has not
been filled.

In the lawsuit, Bishop and the ACLU are arguing that his First
Amendment rights were violated by his demotion and intended firing.

“Dennis Bishop’s right to send this letter is protected by the First
Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” Willis said. “He did it on his own time,
using his home computer, and he did not purport in any way to speak for his

“If free speech stands for anything, it is the right of citizens
— and that includes public employees when they are not on the job —
to express their opinions in the press on matters of public concern.”

Bishop said he was also concerned that other extension agents might
worry about what they can say — and when or where — without losing
their jobs.

“All the other extension agents feel threatened,” he said. “It’s not
good for any employee to feel they cannot speak on issues for threat of being