Now, they are unemployed.
Schuh took a photograph of Stone standing beside a sign. Stone appears to be shouting and flipping-off the sign which asks for “Silence and Respect.” The photo was posted on Stone’s Facebook page for her friends to see. It was meant as an ironic joke similar to the time she posted a photo of herself smoking in front of a “No Smoking” sign. I’m providing an unedited version of the photo so that you can see for yourself what I’m describing.
But, there were four major problems with the taking and posting of the “Silence and Respect” photo:
1. The photograph was taken beside the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.
2. The photograph was taken during a business trip.
3. The photograph went viral on the Internet.
4. Tens of thousands of people called for the termination of the employment of Stone and Schuh.
The photo was posted in October. When the photo clearly became a controversy, Stone removed it and issued an apology on October 20, according to Gawker:
Whoa whoa whoa… wait. This is just us, being the douchebags that we are, challenging authority in general. Much like the pic posted the night before, of me smoking right next to a no smoking sign. OBVIOUSLY we meant NO disrespect to people that serve or have served our country.”
In another public apology, Stone and Schuh said:
We sincerely apologize for all the pain we have caused by posting the picture we took in Washington DC on Facebook. While posted on a public forum, the picture was intended only for our own amusement. We never meant any disrespect to any of the people nationwide who have served this country and defended our freedom so valiantly. It was meant merely as a visual pun, intending to depict the exact opposite of what the sign said, and had absolutely nothing to do with the location it was taken or the people represented there.”
For many, the apologies were not enough. Jazz Shaw, on the blog Hot Air, wrote:
She was grossly and crudely insulting the Honored Dead.”
By contrast, Robert Johnson, a military veteran, wrote at Business Insider:
More importantly, if Lindsey Stone wants to rip on the Tomb of the Unknowns, me, my service, or the hundreds of mutilated troops I served with at Walter Reed Medical Center, she should be able to do so without fear of retribution. Freedom like that is what we fought for, and respecting other opinions is part of what the military tried to teach all of us who served.”
When LIFE found out about the image on November 19, it issued its own public statement:
This photograph in no way reflects the opinions or values of the LIFE organization, which holds our nation’s veterans in the highest regard. We are proud to have veterans serving on our staff and board of trustees, and we value their service. The men and women who have selflessly fought and sacrificed their lives to protect the rights and lives of Americans deserve our utmost respect and gratitude. We are acutely aware that this photo has done a disservice to veterans and we are deeply saddened that it was taken and shared in a public medium.”
Stone and Schuh were placed on unpaid leave pending an internal investigation. It’s unclear what LIFE felt it needed to “investigate” as Diane Enochs, LIFE’s Executive Director, refused to answer my question about this or most of my related questions. Instead, Enochs emailed me the following statement:
Thank you for your inquiry.
LIFE has accepted the resignations of the two employees involved in taking and posting the inappropriate photo. Their resignations marked the conclusion of our internal investigation.
LIFE does have an employee handbook that includes a section on inappropriate use of the Internet and e-mail.
At this point, we will not speculate on what the ramifications might have been had the employees opted not to resign, other than to say that we were prepared to fully investigate the matter and determine a course of action in an expeditious manner.
We are now striving to return the focus to the outstanding care provided to our residents by our staff on a daily basis.”
It’s unclear from the Enochs’ statement and media reports whether or not the two employees were forced to resign. In any case, LIFE has now lost two good employees when, at most, public apologies should have been enough.
I’m troubled by these events.
Technically, this is not a First Amendment freedom of expression issue. The US Constitution applies only to government actions and not those of private citizens or organizations. The government cannot violate one’s freedom of expression, but private citizens and corporations may under certain circumstances. For its part, the National Labor Relations Board has stated that a company’s social media policy cannot be “overly broad” but also stated that social media postings are not necessarily protected under federal labor law.
However, while the First Amendment or Federal labor laws may not apply to the Stone-Schuh photograph, the American value of freedom of expression certainly does. As military veteran Johnson stated, protecting that fundamental value is what our troops have fought and died for.
Let me be clear, Stone and Schuh did not mock their employer. They did not mock the military. They did not intend the photo to be viewed by the general public. However tasteless one might think the photo is, neither Stone nor Schuh intended to offend anyone and promptly apologized and removed the photo when they realized they had offended many people.
If Stone and Schuh worked for a veterans’ organization, I might better understand the action taken by the nonprofit organization. However, LIFE is not a veterans’ organization. What Stone and Schuh did has nothing whatsoever to do with the organization or its mission.
As long as employees do not violate the law, are not immoral, are not unethical, and do not do significant harm to an employer’s organizational mission, they should not be deprived of their right to earn a living. This is not a Taliban society. Employees should not be fearful that their employer is going to police their off-duty activities and terminate them for some offense that has been ambiguously defined.
Human beings are generally offensive creatures. Ok, maybe you’re not, but I am. I’m sure that I do something on an almost daily basis that some might find offensive. But, should I, or anyone for that matter, be denied our livelihood as a result? Should we have to live in fear that our employer might catch us doing something that our employer capriciously considers offensive? Is this really the society we want?
While I do not defend the Stone-Schuh photograph, I do defend their right to create and post it. And, I find it difficult to believe that anyone could be genuinely offended by it. Are people really that thin-skinned? Maybe. And, I defend their right to be offended.
For my part, I’m more easily offended by far more serious and harmful matters. For example, I’m offended that people sexually abuse children. And, I’m offended that few pedophiles are ever brought to justice. I’m also offended that when pedophiles are brought to justice, they seldom get serious sentences.
Photographs don’t often offend me. If I don’t like it or don’t agree with it, I move on. I hope others will embrace the same strategy.
Denying anyone a job for any perceived offense is bad for society. It’s bad for an organization that might lose an otherwise good employee. It’s bad for the remaining employees who will now live in greater fear.
In this electronic age, our “offensive” behavior is more likely than ever to go viral. As a society, as employers, we need to develop a thicker skin and recognize the difference between behaviors that are truly harmful to our organization versus behaviors that are merely tasteless. We need to practice greater tolerance.
Nonprofit organizations exist to make society a better place. Therefore, the sector should be particularly sensitive to any actions it takes that do the opposite. In this light, I’m offended by the actions taken by LIFE-Living Independently Forever.
That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?
ADDITIONAL THOUGHT: The early comments I have received (below) have been overwhelmingly supportive of LIFE’s decision to let the two employees go. I find this particularly interesting when contrasting this post to my original post about Lance Armstrong. In a reader poll, about half of respondents felt that Armstrong should not resign from the LIVESTRONG Foundation board. This was despite the fact that the governing body of his sport found that he broke their rules by doping, might have violated the law by doping, and lied about doping. As a role-model, Armstrong’s behavior was not just harmful to himself, it was harmful to others as well. And, his actions were certainly unethical. So, why did/does Armstrong enjoy so much support while Lindsey Stone and Jamie Schuh do not? Could it be the power of celebrity? Hmm. If only Stone and Schuh had won a Tour de France title.