Thursday, September 16, 2010

NJ Transit Went Too Far In Firing Employee Who Burned Koran

It's an emotionally charged issue, but emotion has nothing to do with the clear boundaries of the law. A person has the right to free speech and the conduct of burning a Koran falls within the protections of the First Amendment.

It may be hateful speech and stupid speech, but it is protected speech nonetheless.

That's why NJ Transit's decision to fire an employee who attended a demonstration against the Cordoba House proposal in Lower Manhattan and burned a copy of the Koran on his own time is likely to get the agency in trouble.
Derek Fenton's 11-year career at the agency came to an abrupt halt Monday after photographs of him ripping pages from the Muslim holy book and setting them ablaze appeared in newspapers.

Fenton, 39, of Bloomingdale, N.J., burned the book during a protest on the ninth anniversary of Sept. 11 outside Park51, the controversial mosque slated to be built near Ground Zero.

He was apparently inspired by Pastor Terry Jones, the Florida clergyman who threatened to burn the Koran that day but later changed his mind.

NJ Transit said Fenton was fired but wouldn't give specifics.

"Mr. Fenton's public actions violated New Jersey Transit's code of ethics," an agency statement said.

"NJ Transit concluded that Mr. Fenton violated his trust as a state employee and therefore [he] was dismissed."

Fenton was ushered from the protests by police on Saturday and questioned, but he was released without charges.
The employee, Derek Fenton, has every right to voice his opinion in that setting. This isn't an instance of an employee carrying out such conduct while in his capacity as an employee or public official.

It looks like NJ Transit stepped over the line in pursuing actions against Fenton for speech Fenton undertook while not on duty. Moreover, it appears that the agency determined that dismissal was the option, rather than probation or other disciplinary measures or undertaking sensitivity training or other such programs.

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