Government Contractor firing employee out of fear of Trump retaliation violates Virginia employment law
(Fairfax, Virginia) – Juli Briskman filed suit in Virginia court today alleging that when Akima LLC forced her to resign, it violated Virginia employment law. Ms. Briskman lost her job in November 2017 after an image of her giving the President’s motorcade the “middle finger” went viral. Akima, a government contractor in Herndon, VA, did not want to be associated with opposition to the President.
A resident of Sterling, VA, Ms. Briskman is the 50 year-old single mom of two teenage children. In October 2017, she was out for her weekend bike ride. President Trump’s motorcade drove past Ms. Briskman as she was riding. Ms. Briskman responded by raising the middle finger of her left hand to show her opposition to the President.
Journalists accompanying the President photographed her message to the President and shared the images online. They went viral. Stephen Colbert, host of The Late Show, said “No one has summed up the mood of the country better … Long may she wave.”
Ms. Briskman disclosed the incident to her bosses at Akima after the image went viral. They forced her to resign, claiming that Ms. Briskman’s posting of a photograph of the incident on her Facebook page—which nowhere mentioned her association with Akima—violated Akima’s social media policy.
But earlier in 2017, a Senior Director of Operations at Akima injected “You’re a fucking Libtard asshole” into a Facebook discussion about Black Lives Matter. And even though the Senior Director’s Facebook profile identified himself as an Akima employee, he was allowed to delete the offensive comment and keep his job.
Ms. Briskman’s suit states that it violates Virginia employment law for a government contractor to fire an employee out of fear of unlawful government retaliation. Ms. Briskman’s suit uses the contrast between her treatment and the Senior Director’s treatment to establish that she was forced to resign because of concerns about upsetting the federal government--not the supposed obscenity of the middle finger. It then underscores the suit’s critical importance by explaining why permitting business to fireemployees out of fear of unlawful government retaliation imperils the freedom of speech and ultimately American democracy by forcing employees of government contractors to make an impossible choice: their livelihood or their freedom of speech.
“I filed this lawsuit against my former employer today because I believe that Americans should not be forced to choose between their principles and their paychecks. Working for a company that does business with the federal government should provide you with greater opportunities, but it should never limit your ability to criticize that government in your private time. I never imagined that my 'one-finger salute' to the Presidential motorcade and its occupant would cost me my job. The actions of my company were swift and unexpected. It is un-American,” Ms. Briskman observed, “to let the government use your own tax dollars to buy your off-duty obedience.”
The suit filed by her attorneys Maria Simon and Rebecca Geller of The Geller Law Group in Fairfax, VA and Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to preventing our democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government, argues that Akima violated Virginia employment law by firing Ms. Briskman.
“Juli’s expression of disapproval of the President is fundamental political speech protected by both the United States Constitution and Virginia state law,” explains her attorney Maria Simon. Ms. Simon argues that “Akima’s actions—forcing Juli to resign out of fear of unlawful retaliation by the government—violated the basic tenets of Virginia employment law. Ms. Briskman chose in her private time and in her capacity as a private citizen to express her disapproval of President Trump by extending her middle finger.” Maria Simon’s law partner Rebecca Geller notes that “Although many will disagree with Ms. Briskman’s message and her means of expressing it, there can be no doubt that such speech is at the very core of the First Amendment and the Virginia Constitution.”
Cameron Kistler from Protect Democracy explained why Ms. Briskman’s case was so important. “Firing an employee because you’re afraid of unlawful retaliation by the government is called ‘autocratic capture,’ and we need to be concerned about it in the United States,” Kistler observed. “Particularly in countries like Turkey, Russia, Egypt, Hungary, and Thailand, we see the private sector facilitating the silencing of dissent because the ability to do business is seen as being dependent on being favorable to the regime. There’s no reason to believe that it cannot happen here as well, and we should be particularly worried about autocratic capture in Virginia where so many businesses rely on government contracts.”
For more information on the case and to read Protect Democracy’s Q and A’s on this case, you can visit https://protectdemocracy.org/briskman-v-akima/. Additional inquiries can be directed to The Geller Law Group at 703.687.6188 or Office@thegellerlawgroup.com.