First question: Is a state employee allowed to hold personal opinions contrary to the official position of the department he works for? The answer is easy. Of course, everyone is entitled to a personal opinion. The state does not engage in thought control.
The next question is a little trickier: Is a state employee entitled to publicly express his opinions if it’s clear that he’s speaking in a private capacity, not his capacity as a state employee?
That second question goes to the crux of the mini-firestorm swirling around Will Vehrs in the photo captions he submitted to Commonwealth Conservative last week, in which he made light of the Martinsville region’s economic decline. The story, first filed by the Martinsville Bulletin — picked up by Conaway Haskins here – was published this morning as the lead Metro & Virginia story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Even though Vehrs has apologized profusely, local politicians and economic developers have called upon the Governor to fire him.
Said Del. Ward Armstrong, D-Henry: “I understand his apology, but he’s in a position where he’s going to be working with economic development. How can he work with a potential prospect after having in a public fashion demeaned the area? … It’s not a criminal offense, but it does destroy his effectiveness in economic development.”
- Del. Armstrong needs to get his facts straight. Vehrs works with the Department of Business Assistance, not in “economic development.” He mans a hot-line dispensing information to small businesses. He does not interact with business prospects that Martinsville and Henry County might attempt to lure to their region. His job assisting small businesses, even those from Martinsville and Henry County, is in no way compromised.
- More to the point, Vehrs was not speaking in an official capacity, either for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership or the Department of Business Assistance. He was clearly blogging in his capacity as a private citizen. Has Vehrs violated any state policy? Has he violated any departmental protocols? What grounds would the Governor have for firing him? Does the Governor really want to set a precedent of quashing a state employee’s right to free speech in the blogosphere?
- Armstrong’s strong-arming of Vehrs is likely to backfire. Everyone can sympathise with the economic plight of Martinsville and Henry County. But few will sympathise with Armstrong’s seemingly vengeful lashing out against a mid-level state employee for words that, objectively speaking, caused no harm. This is not the kind of visibility that Martinsville-Henry County wants to generate for itself. The last thing the region needs is for the blogosphere to mobilize in Vehrs’ defense. No one would benefit from the story going national.
Best solution: Let it go. Vehrs is obviously remorseful. He’s learned his lesson. Let the story die, and get back to economic development.
Update: The Kaine administration has suspended Vehrs from his job for 10 days. Will blogs about it on Commonwealth Conservative.