Opinion

By resigning, Elizabeth Lauten finally did the right thing

Freedom of speech does not include the right to stay employed after embarrassing one's boss

The resignation of a congressional staffer who criticized President Obama’s daughters has a lot of online commenters complaining that she should be immune from repercussions of her statements because she has a constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech.

Such comments reflect a common misunderstanding about freedom of speech. There’s a difference between government arresting someone for speaking his or her mind -- which the Constitution does protect us from -- and a boss firing an employee, or suggesting that a resignation might be in order, for speaking in ways that could be seen as out of turn. That’s particularly true in the case of Elizabeth Lauten, who was communications director for a congressman. A big part of her job was supposed to entail positive publicity for her boss, not dragging him into the mud of personal criticism of a couple of teenagers.

Lauten, who worked for Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.), was widely and rightly criticized for her over-the-top Facebook attack on Malia and Sasha Obama, ages 16 and 13, respectively. She engaged in slut-shaming, saying that their short skirts were appropriate mainly for hanging out in a bar, not for attending a White House turkey-pardoning event. She vilified them for their slightly bored demeanor, told them -- though they probably have too much sense to have cared -- that they were low-class, unappreciative of their role in the White House, and that they had obviously learned their debased habits from their parents.

There was a lack of class here, and we probably know on whose part.

It’s true that in the United States, people have a right to make their opinions known -- even when they do it inappropriately, in an ugly, thoughtless and hurtful manner -- without fear of being thrown in jail for it.

Whether Lauten had a right to keep her job afterward is another matter -- a matter between her and her boss.

The Constitution does not guarantee us the jobs of our choice, or the right to hold on to our jobs no matter what we say publicly, no matter how much we embarrass our employers or behave in an inappropriate manner. It would appear from Lauten’s Facebook assault on two teenage girls that she lacks the necessary filter between her angry, nasty thoughts and her typing fingers. The filter didn’t even make an appearance on Thanksgiving weekend, when our expressions are generally supposed to be of the more gracious kind.

Lauten had become a liability to the congressman who employed her. It certainly didn’t help that she appears not to have been aware of the general -- though admittedly occasionally broken -- rule against dragging a president’s minor children into the muck of personal and political attacks. Her resignation may have been her most graceful move of the last several days.

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