1. Opinion

Editorial: Don't silence public workers who raise concerns

Published Apr. 24, 2015

Too often the response to serious situations brought to light by public workers is to stop the discussion rather than address the issue. Three recent incidents involving Floridians reflect a troubling trend of government agencies seeking to silence free speech among workers who have raised concerns about legitimate issues that otherwise might have been ignored. The workers should be applauded for their bravery to speak out rather than punished and ordered to keep their mouths shut.

Ruskin postal worker Doug Hughes flew a gyrocopter onto the lawn of the U.S. Capitol earlier this month and now finds himself slapped with a bevy of restrictions by his employer, the U.S. Postal Service. Hughes told the Tampa Bay Times he was put on administrative leave pending an investigation, banned from entering postal property without permission and forbidden from talking to the media. His April 15 act of civil disobedience was intended to draw much-needed attention to campaign finance reform. There was no reason to stop Hughes from speaking out on a matter of great public importance.

In the Tampa Bay area, Tampa firefighters got a warped lesson in civics after several courageous employees spoke out about working and living conditions for some female firefighters who share bathrooms and living quarters with their male co-workers. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn responsibly stepped up to find the money for partitions in sleeping areas and increase diversity training. But fire Chief Tom Forward issued a memo barring employees from talking to the media without his permission. He also restricted social media interactions. These kinds of gag orders are not in the best interest of government or the public, and they discourage well-intentioned public employees from bringing legitimate issues into the spotlight and triggering reforms.

Separately, Florida Department of Corrections employees have been punished for testifying that several investigations into suspicious inmate deaths had been shut down by inspector general Jeffery Beasley. Two inspectors who appeared before state lawmakers earlier this spring have been reassigned to desk jobs and now face internal complaints about their work. They also have no access to department records and were denied whistle-blower protection. This is hardly the way to reward employees whose observations should be valued amid a series of well-documented scandals involving prison staff in the cloistered Corrections Department.

Government workers should be encouraged to speak out when they suspect wrongdoing and have gotten little traction by following prescribed channels for lodging complaints. Public employers should welcome such actions instead of systematically working to silence employees and discouraging others from taking similarly just stands.

One of the goals of the free press is to serve as an unbiased eye on the government and its agencies. It is an important watchdog role that bridges the gap when agencies are unresponsive. Of all people, government employees should not have to fear the loss of employment or their professional reputations when they speak out about perceived wrongs.