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Santa Clara County, Calif., officials have banned a 20-year employee from making “less than positive” remarks about Obamacare, because they can cause stress for listening co-workers.
The county made the stunning move when Norina Mooney was chatting with a co-worker about the Affordable Care Act, according to the Pacific Justice Institute, which is representing the woman.
The organization has asked for a response by next week to its letter raising several issues with Lorie McKeown in the Santa Clara County Department of Child Support Services, where Mooney works.
Pacific Justice said Mooney was further informed that her comment had caused another co-worker — not the person to whom it was directed — to feel “stressed out.”
Her speech, therefore, was too political for the workplace, the county officials insisted.
“It was then communicated to Ms. Mooney that she should step outside if she wanted to say anything controversial or political, such as references to Obamacare that were less than positive,” the attorneys wrote.
Pacific Justice argued the warning’s effect was “to chill and suppress her First Amendment expression, based on her viewpoint, and to condition her expression on other co-workers’ approval of it.”
The warning from the supervisor in a government institution has caused Mooney “to legitimately fear reprimand and disciplinary action if she comments on a matter of public concern in a way that is deemed by you or a co-worker to be ‘controversial’,” the law firm noted.
The letter contends such censorship is unconstitutional and contains an underlying pro-Obama bias.
The county agency could not be reached for comment.
Pacific Justice said it’s “indisputable that pro-Obama posters, calendars and even clothing have been and currently are being permitted in the same area where Ms. Mooney was warned not to say anything negative about Obamacare.”
The pro-Obama items are close to being unacceptable “political activities,” the group said, but an employee’s speech that does not solicit or use county resources certainly should be permitted.
“The county cannot, under the guise of preventing disruption or labeling opinions on the leading issue of our time as ‘political,’ silence an unpopular viewpoint anytime a bystander claims that they are ‘stressed out’ by encountering an opinion that differs from their own,” Pacific Justice said.
“It is illegal.”
The legal team requested assurances that Mooney’s constitutional rights would be protected and there would be no “adverse” action against the worker.
The letter was signed by PJI staff attorney Matthew B. McReynolds.
“We warned the county that this type of censorship would spark public outrage if it were not immediately addressed,” McReynolds noted. “Unfortunately, they do not yet seem to be taking seriously this obviously impermissible restriction on free speech.”
Brad Dacus, president of Pacific Justice Institute, said that just when it seemed the “disastrous Obamacare rollout couldn’t get much worse, the county of Santa Clara is compounding those problems by claiming that criticism is off-limits.”
“Liberals and conservatives alike should be able to agree that this type of censorship is chilling and unconstitutional,” he said. “This is a matter of intense public concern, and the last thing we can afford is the silencing of questions or criticism.”