January 31, 2023

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The Legal System

Man Terminated for Wearing Hitler Costume at Madison Children’s Museum

Are Adolf Hitler and Nazi costumes too scary for Halloween with the recent rise of anti-Semitism in 2022?

A Madison Museum staff member wore an Adolf Hitler costume near the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus on Halloween. The man wore his costume off campus and is not affiliated with the University. However, the campus has experienced anti-Semitic incidents this school year. In September, several anti-Semitic sidewalk chalking were made around the UW-Madison campus. The Adolf Hitler costume was misinterpreted as support of for the anti-Semitic vandalism, though the man who wore the costume believed he was parodying the Nazi leader by dressing up.

Madison Museum put out a statement that the man’s costume was “completely unacceptable and runs counter to everything the museum believes.” The man has worked at the museum for a decade. The museum and the Madison police acknowledged that man has cognitive disabilities. The police noted that the outfit may have been “offensive” but was not a crime to wear it.

Carved Halloween PumpkinsEmployers Do Not Ratify Speech by Retaining Problematic Employees

The man wore the costume outside the museum and that he wasn’t representing the museum when he wore it. Yet the museum still felt compelled to fire him and to publicly state that it did not support the man in wearing said costume.

It used to be that employees outside of the office or worksite were doing things on their own time. If a man wears a Hitler costume on Halloween, people do not naturally assume that his employer approved of or were even aware of his costume. However, the social media age means that even conduct outside of the office may potentially have employment consequences. This seems to be a serious erosion of privacy and separation of workplace and non-workplace conduct.

Employers have a right to assure consumers in the public that they don’t support speech that an employee makes off-hours, but there shouldn’t be pressure for an employer to make that sort of statement in the first place. Silence does not mean and should not be interpreted as ratification of an employee’s actions. The further society expects an employer to distance itself from an employee’s out of office statements, the more we erode our own privacy in the workplace.

Can There Be Grace In Addressing Offensive Speech?

Wearing a Nazi costume is not a crime, and is in fact protected speech from the government under the First Amendment. However, it may be worthwhile applying the principles behind criminal laws to America’s culture wars to reach a fairer outcome. Most of the culture wars have focused on punishment and sometimes retribution for perceived wrongs. However, criminal sentencing is not always about punishment, retribution, or deterrence. Indeed, the “left” side of the political spectrum has advocated for rehabilitation of criminals.

There is certainly room for rehabilitation in our culture wars, especially in this instance. This man was attempting to parody Nazism, not to support it. He was wearing the costume during Halloween, a time when most people dress up to be different people than who they usually are. He had certain cognitive disabilities that inhibited him from fully understanding why or how his costume could be misinterpreted. The Museum didn’t have to support their rogue employee, but neither did they have to take any punitive action.

It is understandable that the Jewish community were alarmed by the recent anti-Semitic graffiti placed around campus recently. However, both the Jewish community and the Museum could have taken this moment to educate the man and the public at large as to why anti-Semitism is a toxic viewpoint rather than just demonize a man for a news cycle. He will likely become another martyr to free speech absolutists and actual Neo-Nazis.  A sponsored trip or advertisement to a Holocaust Museum would have done more to combat anti-Semitism than to make this man some sort of example.

Do I Need a Lawyer for My Wrongful Termination Case?

If you are involved in any type of workplace dispute or you have been wrongfully terminated, it is important to consult with a well-qualified and knowledgeable employment attorney. A qualified attorney can review your case and explain your options. If you have been wrongfully terminated or accused of wrongfully firing an employee, an attorney can represent you in court.