A lawyer whose firm specializes in cases involving freedom of speech says a Buncombe County school board member accused of using a Nazi salute in criticizing the board’s discussion policy could have a cause of action against her accusers.
Black Mountain atty. Kirk Lyons summed up Board member Lisa Baldwin’s case in simple terms: “There’s an old axiom at law that if I call somebody a [expletive] I’d better be prepared to fight or run, but if I call him a thief I’d better be able to prove it.
“One is simple abuse,” Lyons explained. “The other is accusatory. The law protects everybody, even public figures, from false accusation.”
At the board’s November meeting, Baldwin objected that a directive from Chairman Bob Rhinehart had not been placed on the meeting agenda and therefore had undercut any opportunity for the board to discuss it. “The next meeting I come to, do I need to say, ‘Heil, Hitler’?” she asked. According to some media sources in attendance, Baldwin gave a Nazi salute as she made her comment.
Baldwin’s comments and the salute allegation touched off a firestorm of criticism, largely on social media sites and in and through the pages of the Asheville Citizen-Times. Letters to the editor castigated Baldwin for improper conduct and lack of sensitivity. Citizen-Times columnist John Boyle accused her of “trivializing the Holocaust.” Baldwin’s fellow board members received an anonymous letter calling for her to be censured and setting out step-by-step instructions for doing so.
Baldwin has acknowledged – and even defended – the Hitler reference, saying that it expressed her frustration that open discussion on the board was being stifled in a “totalitarian” manner. However, she has emphatically denied “mockingly giving a Nazi salute,” as reported in the Citizen-Times, when addressing Rhinehart. Baldwin says she has suffered considerable distress and fears her position on the board may have been damaged as a result of her being falsely accused.
Video footage of the board’s November meeting shows no significant movement on Baldwin’s part as she makes the Hitler reference. At minute 12:20 of the tape she appears to have both hands resting on the table top. A few seconds later, she slightly raises a piece of paper with her left hand and consults it, then lowers it. At minute 12:35, where she makes the Hitler reference, there appears to be a movement of her left hand, with her arm still on the desk. The movement is slight enough to be mostly hidden from the camera’s view by Baldwin’s open laptop. The Nazi salute involves extending the arm fully and stiffly outward and upward from the shoulder.
“The video is inconclusive,” Boyle said in a phone interview, “but she shouldn’t have made the Hitler reference.”
Lyons, who is Chief Trial Counsel for the Southern Legal Resource Center, a nonprofit that advocates mostly in First Amendment-related Southern issues, said he sees the fallout over Baldwin’s conduct as symptomatic of a larger problem. “Critical thinking and benefit of the doubt have gone down the tubes in our public discourse,” he said. “People in a public forum use political sarcasm to make a point and next thing you know, the media and other people seize on the remark and not the point. No sane, mature adult would take a remark like that, uttered in a heated discussion, out of context and turn it into an indictment – only people with an agenda or who can’t take criticism themselves.
“These same sorts of people get very selective about their indignation, too,” Lyons added. “For instance, comparing the Confederate flag to a swastika and likening the Confederacy to the Nazi regime is not only historically silly but grossly insulting to the memory of thousands of Confederate descendants who died fighting Hitler. But people with a certain agenda do it all the time.”
Boyle brushed aside the Confederate comparison. “I don’t think there’s any comparison,” he said. “I can understand her [Baldwin] blowing off steam if she was frustrated, but [the Hitler remark] was out of line. I’ve had a couple of Jewish people complain to me about it.” Boyle did not indicate if the persons in question had been present at the board meeting.
“If she felt like that, maybe she should have called them Communists or something like that,” Boyle said.