A deputy attorney general for the state of Indiana has been fired after engaging in a Twitter debate with the liberal blog site Mother Jones over how to manage the thousands of protesters swarming the state capitol in Wisconsin.
After a Mother Jones staffer tweeted a false report that riot police might sweep demonstrators out of the Wisconsin capitol building Saturday, he received a "chilling" response from a seemingly random source. Twitter user JCCentCom responded that the police should "use live ammunition" in trying manage the burgeoning protest crowds.
Mother Jones blogger Adam Weinstein then engaged in a back-and-forth Twitter conversation in which JCCentCom condemned demonstrators as "political enemies" and "thugs" who were "physically threatening legally elected officials." When Weinstein urged his followers to report JCCentCom to Twitter officials, he reportedly responded by calling the blogger a "typical leftist."
As it turns out, "JCCentCom" is actually the Twitter account of Jeff Cox, an Indiana deputy attorney general. Weinstein writes:
As one of 144 attorneys in that office, Jeff Cox has represented the people of his state for 10 years. And for much of that time, it turns out, he's vented similar feelings on Twitter and on his blog, Pro Cynic. In his nonpolitical tweets and blog posts, Cox displays a keen litigator's mind, writing sharply and often wittily on military history and professional basketball. But he evinces contempt for political opponents—from labeling President Obama an "incompetent and treasonous" enemy of the nation to comparing "enviro-Nazis" to Osama bin Laden, likening ex-Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Service Employees International Union members to Nazi "brownshirts" on multiple occasions, and referring to an Indianapolis teen as "a black teenage thug who was (deservedly) beaten up" by local police. A "sensible policy for handling Afghanistan," he offered, could be summed up as: "KILL! KILL! ANNIHILATE!"
On Sunday, Mother Jones contacted Cox through his work email, requesting clarification of his comments and their context. According to Weinstein, Cox responded, "For 'context?' Or to silence me? All my comments on twitter & my blog are my own and no one else's. And I can defend them all."
"[Y]ou will probably try to demonize me," he added, "but that comes with the territory."
Mother Jones then notified the state attorney general's office of Cox's comments. Bryan Corbin, a spokesman for the AG's office condemned Cox's statements as "inflammatory" and promised "an immediate review" of the issue.
"We do not condone any comments that would threaten or imply violence or intimidation toward anyone," Corbin said.
"Individuals have the First Amendment right to post their own personal views in online forums on their own time," Corbin wrote to the blog site, "but as public servants, state employees also should strive to conduct themselves with professionalism and appropriate decorum in their interactions with the public."
By Wednesday afternoon, the state office announced Cox no longer worked there. In a statement, Corbin confirmed that Cox had lost his job:
Today the Indiana Attorney General’s Office announced that Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Cox is no longer employed by this agency.
The Indiana Attorney General’s Office conducted a thorough and expeditious review after “Mother Jones” magazine today published an article attributing private Twitter postings and private blog postings to Cox.
Civility and courtesy toward all members of the public are very important to the Indiana Attorney General’s Office. We respect individuals’ First Amendment right to express their personal views on private online forums, but as public servants we are held by the public to a higher standard, and we should strive for civility.
Cox's case raises a thought-provoking question: should government employees be held to "higher standards" when it comes to free speech? Is it fair to fire someone for comments they made in a non-official capacity?