Should Top Dog Worker Be Out of Job for Attending White Supremacist Rally?

Customers wait in line at Top Dog eatery in Berkeley on Sunday, Aug, 13. (Frances Dinkelspiel/Berkeleyside)

In Berkeley, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, patrons of local restaurant Top Dog over the weekend found themselves debating whether it was fair for the restaurant to fire an employee who attended a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Top Dog has since stated that the employee, Cole White, resigned and was not fired.

In a statement Monday, here’s how the company explained White’s leaving: “On Saturday, August 12, it came to our attention that one of our employees was involved in the recent ‘alt-right’ rally in Charlottesville. Later that day we spoke with Cole White.  During that conversation Cole chose to voluntarily resign his employment with top dog and we accepted his resignation.”

But over the weekend, some customers assumed he was fired. They were startled to see a newly posted sign announcing, “Effective Saturday August 12th Cole White no longer works at Top Dog. The actions of those in Charlottesville are not supported by Top Dog. We believe in individual freedom and voluntary association for everyone. Yours Truly, Top Dog.”

After Cole was spotted in a photo from the Charlottesville rally, some local customers quickly took to social media calling for people to boycott the place, and exclaiming in horror that he had perhaps served them.

After reading the sign that Cole no longer worked there, customer Brandon Hoffman said punishing the owner at this point didn’t make sense.

“We live in America, where everyone has freedom of speech and thought,” Hoffman said. “Obviously white supremacy is not something I stand by, and what happened in Charlottesville is out of the manager’s control and he has done everything he could to try and solve the problem. So there shouldn’t be any other negative retaliation to go towards him, right?”

White has been involved in previous white supremacist rallies that turned violent, according to Emily Marshall, who says she was assaulted by him at a Berkeley rally in April after she had been punched in the face by Nathan Damigo, a leading white nationalist in California.

“I looked this guy in the eye as I was trying to get up,” she told KQED, “and he ran up to me and grabbed me by the shoulders and kneed me in the forehead at least four times.”

That would move this away from a free speech question. And the backlash for Top Dog may not end with Cole White no longer working there. The publication Berkeleyside raised questions about Top Dog owner Richard Riemann’s association with a website that supports pro-Confederacy views.

Brandon Hoffman’s sister, Cheyenne, said White’s departure made her wonder what constitutes free speech.

“You can believe what you want to believe. But it’s also like at what point … how far can you share your own opinion without other people being offended by it, and what’s the proper way of sharing your opinion? And some people don’t understand that some people share it in a way that’s not acceptable and then they get wronged for that. But then certain times it’s OK because it’s like that’s wrong,” she said. “So I can believe what I want to believe, but I’m not forcing it on other people, you know?”

Another Top Dog regular, John Thomas, who’s studying applied mathematics at UC Berkeley, said both Cole and the owner, if he fired him, were within their rights.

“Personally, I think one’s individual actions in your personal life shouldn’t affect your employment. Simply just because it’s a personal freedom thing. I don’t agree with anything of his political beliefs. I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum entirely,” Thomas said.

“But I think if you want to hold extreme political beliefs in either direction, you’re welcome to hold them as long as it doesn’t impact others or your professional life.

“But it’s also the right of a company to fire someone whose beliefs they don’t agree with,” Thomas said. “He has his right to express his personal beliefs and the company has the right to fire him for them.”

Thomas didn’t think that someone getting fired for his or her political stance would lead to more fear about expressing one’s self.

“I don’t think it’s a huge concern. Simply because companies expect a certain level of professionalism essentially if you are associating yourself with them. He, while he was there, in no way associated himself with the company,” Thomas said.

The debate over being fired for speaking out about political or cultural beliefs was in the spotlight last week after Google fired employee James Damore. KQED’s Tonya Mosely weighed in on the controversy on NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered.

Should Top Dog Worker Be Out of Job for Attending White Supremacist Rally? 17 August,2017Julia McEvoy

  • Luka

    He is free to have and speak his beliefs, his employer and society are free to shun him

    • DrG

      My sentiments exactly.

    • virgil

      The ? isn’t if the employer can fire him (we all agree they can) the ? is if they should do so? Jeeesh.

      • hightek

        Of course he should. Keeping him employed is a risk to the business. The business could end up losing all their customers and being forced to close, which results in everyone being out of work.

        A business closing and everyone losing their job because one employee was a POS? The calculation is easy.

    • virgil

      Maybe the so called Alt Right should show up at the Top Dog and crowd every one else out!!!!

  • virgil

    Let us see. If he attended a communist rally would he be fired? Ah no. Besides where does it end? What if he wrote a letter to the editor expressing climate denial? What if he signed a petition supporting the mass deportation of illegal aliens? Where does it end?

    • DarqueSideOfTheMoon

      It ends when people no longer believe it is their prerogative to subjugate others based upon their race, religion, national origin or sexual orientation. Those who embrace such thoughts are free to speak their beliefs. We are free to shun them, to refuse to hire them, to express our disgust with their ideas, which have no place in a civilized society.

      • virgil
        • Bramagola

          Thoughts are free, actions are not. Yell at the sky forever, run someone over, your life is forfeit.

      • virgil

        BTW evreyting you said applies to communists as well (visited North Korea lately?) so my point remains —and is unanswered by you of course–would this dude have been fired/forced to resign had he attended a communist rally? Would there have been a backlash if he had? What he sported a I Love Kim Jong Un T-Shirt? I can assure there would have been no backlash against him and he would be grilling hot dogs at this very minute. Those old double standards!!!

    • martinsnapp

      It’s an old maxim of the law that your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. Expressing your opinions, yes. Inciting violence against others, no.

      • virgil

        You have evidence this person (which this discussion is about) who worked at Top Dog took a swing at somebody or threatened to take a swing at somebody? If so let us hear about it if not stop slandering him.

        • Louisla4

          “I looked this guy in the eye as I was trying to get up,” she told KQED,
          “and he ran up to me and grabbed me by the shoulders and kneed me in
          the forehead at least four times.” Hit a woman when she’s down….yeah that’s American Values. Read the story.

          • virgil

            That moves it away from a strictly speech issue except for one little thing: that allegedly happened back in April. Why is he disciplined now for it? And the Co. statement said his leaving was a direct result of events in VA not Berkeley. So you read the story and explain: a 5 month gap between the reporting of the alleged incident in April and forced resignation now. and how events in VA directly effect his job performance in Berkeley.

  • nitrab

    Gee, if this man is willing to inflict violence on people in the street, why would I want to eat food served by him? The level of vitriol and violence that he espouses goes beyond norms. How could I not imagine that he would perform acts of covert aggression–spitting in my food, miscalculating my tab, being downright rude? This isn’t to say there is should be witch hunts to suss out employees for their views, but he exposed himself to the community and as an employer it is a liability to have someone on staff whose views aren’t run of the mill “different politics”, they are anti social, racist and likely misogynistic.

  • Paul Sve

    Don’t get this. He quit, not fired. Restaurant is not to blame.
    So let’s move on to something important…

    • virgil

      It was obviously a forced resignation. When you resign with a metaphorical pistol at your head it isn’t really something you wanted to do.

      • Mark Adams

        California is an at-will state. Employees can be fired at any time for any reason, as long as it is not because they are a member of a protected group (sex, religion, sexual orientation etc.). The restaurant is completely within their rights to fire him with no explanation. Here’s what probably happened: the restaurant told him they were terminating his employment, and gave him the option to resign in order to not have a forced termination on his record. He was under no obligation to resign but did so in his own self-interest.

        • virgil

          I clearly stated in early posts that in most cases employer can indeed fire at will. When there is a violation of the law the employee can seek legal action for compensation etc. Only ? is if employer should do so and should a employer fire over such an issue like a speech issue. I mean it is not like this dude was caught on camera stealing candy from a baby or vandalizing a church. or groping a lady etc. As I said early there is a slippery slope here. What if employee A wrote a letter to the editor denying climate change? What if an employee X says in a class at UCB that he/she doubts the Holocaust? How far do we want to go with this? Until employees are just robots fearful to say or do anything controversial? That is what happened in the McCarthy era.

          • Paul Sve

            Virgil, you are living in world of conjecture, not facts. Where did you get the evidence that he was either a. fired, or b. quit because he was asked to leave? Everything else in your posts is meaningless without this evidence.

          • virgil

            A. The distinction between being forced to resign and being fired is slim indeed The strong implication here is that he was forced to resign….forced being the rational choice when the alternative is termination. How many job applications have I seen over the years that ask “Have you ever been fired or forced to resign?” Obviously employers consider the two to be almost indistinct. A resignation of one’s free will implies there were no negative consequences if one does not resign; a forced resignation implies there will be negative outcomes if you did not do it eg. formal termination which would have to be revealed to a future employer if they should do a background check etc etc .Here the TD owner says it was of the dude’s free will; the dude hasn’t said anything in this article about it. Normally that would mean we would have to take the TD owner at his word that is was of the dude’s free will Except employer also linked the the guy’s decision to resign with his participation at the VA Alt right rally. Why are the 2 linked by the employer? The strong implication is that he did not resign of his free will, that is was not something he would have done otherwise than for the backlash to the VA rally and anyone on Alt right who was there…To claim that w/o a full body of evidence anything I said is meaningless is an absurdity on your part. In public discourse we comment on matters all the time when the evidence is not complete

          • virgil

            There is, of course, a huuuuuuuuuuge difference between being asked to resign by a superior and offering one’s resignation The clear implication of the article is that the TD worker was asked to resign by the owner The sequence of events is: the owner sits down to talk with the worker about his participation in an Alt right rally in VA. Next the worker, who apparently wanted to make a career out of grilling dogs, resigns Ah em the clear implication is that he was asked to leave. Thanks for the input Paul and now you can join OJ in the search for the “real killer” while the rest of us will still conclude 4 is the result of adding 2+2.

          • virgil

            B. Contrary to your claim that I am living in a dream world of conjecture I cited several facts in my prior comments. For example, several people here said the April incident warranted his departure–and asked the perfectly reasonable question why? It had been a 5 month gap between that incident and his leaving TD. Asking why such a long delay if his alleged protest violence was so serious that it effect his job duties is not conjecture. I asked how a gathering in VA—thousands of miles from Berkeley effected his job duties? The TD owner specifically linked this dude’s presence in VA with the guys supposed resignation—not conjecture but an accurate reading of what is presented in the article. The TD owner linked the 2 not me. Why? How did it effect his job duties. For my part I don”t know if the dude who processed the sausages I am eating right now is a neo nazi or KKK member etc. I frankly dont care..as long as he/she is provided me with a product I want and the price I want I could care less.

        • virgil

          He was of course under no legal obligation to resign and he could have taken a firing instead. Who disagrees with that? It was forced because it is not something (form what we know) he would have cone otherwise except for the backlash from something he did which was legal and on his own time. It is also possible he felt threatened on his job and that mite have played a role. The ? here anyways is should the employer have even presented the alternative to him : resign or termination over a speech issue that was far removed from the work place? And would it ever have even come up had say he attended a communist protest?

        • virgil

          You left out whistle blowers—-can a whistle blower who is fired as retaliation seek legal action and damages? I was under the impression the answer is yes but can’t say I know for sure. So an employee at a nuke power plant reports toxic waste being dumped into the ocean in violation of the law and reports it to the media and it is traced back to him and he is fired. No case? Like I said I really dont know if CA has whistle blower protection.

      • Kaitlin Barnett

        If he quit I think he is not entitled to employment benefits. So he should have weighed up the pros and cons.

        • virgil

          If he was terminated he really would not be entitled

    • virgil

      Em you ever seen a job application that says “Have you ever been fired or FORCED to resign?”—employer make no distinction between them. Get it now?

  • popoff

    The owner of the restaurant is the one who should decide to keep or to fire him.

  • chaotik_lord

    Can we stop legitimatizing violent hate speech and racist, anti-American beliefs as “political beliefs?” These are not questions of tax policy. They are fundamental questions of morality and ethics. They go against the stated policies of almost all employers and anti-discrimination law, as well. People are free to hold and express those beliefs but regardless of political impact, they are not political beliefs. These foundational cognitive errors, deeply held, are rightly vilified.

    Before jumping to the unwise “slippery slope” argument, remember that works both ways. If someone attended a rally that advocated child rape or cannibalism, nobody would be surprised at an employer’s desire to separate or individuals in general refusing any association with that person. Those are also abhorrent, amoral, antisocial positions that nobody would call “political beliefs.” Their racism may call for certain political remedies, but the racism itself is not a political position.

    Somehow, people have been duped into confusing freedom of speech with a belief that any and all expression is an inherent good. The only inherent good implied therein is that the state shouldn’t be able to dictate or control what you say. That doesn’t mean society shouldn’t, and in fact, that’s our responsibility as good citizens – we have the right and responsibility to say “You can’t use my microphone, and you can’t sit with us.”

  • DarqueSideOfTheMoon

    Free speech is a right. Freedom from the consequences of what you say (or do) is not a right. If this man worked for me, I would have fired him as well.

    • virgil

      And you would have replaced him with a robot?

      • Jeremy V. Riedl

        No, it is very easy to find qualified people who are also decent human beings.

        • virgil

          Oh and how far down the line do you want to go to make sure the person producing the product you are consuming is “a decent human being”? How about the truck driver who delivered the hot dogs? Maybe he/she is a fascist or just voted for DJT. Or how about the men and women at the slaughter house? That hot dog you are eating might have been processed by a neo Na zi. Or how about the pig farmers—got check them out too. Who know maybe they are Hitler’s grandchildren hiding out in Argentina. Jeeesh—the only thing that should concern you or me is getting the product you want at the price you want.

    • virgil

      So he was fired? All the others here say he resigned!!!

  • Civil collaboration

    If he’s assaultingbpeople during demonstrations, I sure wouldn’t want an out of control p

  • Marc Vance

    Ha!!!
    The SAME free speech rights the article spoke of ALSO give the customers the Right to take their business elsewhere if the owner holds those views as well!!

    If it can be verified that there is a Confederate tie, please stand up for your fellow citizens that would be disenfranchised by the support of such a website, and speak with your dollars, or lack thereof……

    Do the right thing.

    • virgil

      Yes people have a right to take their business elsewhere and right wing types have a right to take their biz to TD as well. You should have learned that lesson from Chick Fli A —when gays advertised the owner was against gay marriage and called for a boycott all it did was advertise to the Evangelicals where to get their chicken !! Business at Chick Fli A soared as a result!!!

  • Joan Sutherland

    To frame it in a way the right can understand, if the restaurant did indeed fire him, they can blame it on a potential loss of customers, due to the employee’s negative notoriety. They would do the same if it was revealed that an employee was a pedophile or burgler. No one wants to patronize an establishment that hires unacceptable members of society. Hence, it doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with free speech rights. It could boil down to it simply being bad for business to keep the Cole’s of the country on the payroll, who are blessedly outnumbered. For those who continue to whine about Cole’s right to free speech, it can be pointed out that CA is an ’employment at will’ state, brought to Cole and others by the type of right wing representatives they support. It’s really a no win for Cole or those who argue that his termination was somehow unjust.

  • Liz

    Cheyenne, the proper way of sharing an opinion is not by kneeing someone in the face four times. FFS. If what happened to Emily is true this guy should be in jail for assault.

  • Dea2

    The Constitution gives us freedom from the government making laws to suppress it. It says nothing about freedom from the consequences of that speech. The restaurant owners absolutely have the right to fire him.

  • Jamie Roberts Cerri

    To paraphrase Lin-Manuel Miranda – “Hate is hate is hate is hate is hate…” FORMER employer should not be punished, but employee made his choice, with all the ramifications that involves.

  • Jamie Roberts Cerri

    BTW, always remember – don’t play with the trolls!!

  • Jeremy V. Riedl

    Wow. The people quoted in this article talk about “beliefs” generically as if they are all equally legitimate and worthy of our respect. Clearly if your “beliefs” include: white supremacy, violence against people because of their skin color, and legitimizing terrorist acts against those people, your beliefs are not protected speech under the first amendment and also not worthy of respect.

    • erictank

      You’re wrong about those expression of those beliefs not being protected speech (see Skokie vs Illinois – so long as they do not act on those beliefs, they can march and wave flags and signs and shout all they want), though you are correct about them being beliefs not worthy of respect.

      But the restaurant was under no obligation to retain him as an employee, either. And if the allegations about his actions can be proven, Mr. Cole might be in a good bit of legal trouble for those unlawful actions.

  • hightek

    People don’t seem to understand what “free speech” means. It means the government cannot censor you, nor pass laws that restrict your right to free expression (with certain limitations). It does not mean that you are free from criticism or consequences when you assert that right.

    And under At Will Employment laws, that Republicans fought so hard for, companies are free to fire any employee for any reason they want, unless it’s due to discrimination based on a protected class as defined by the Civil Rights Act

    People really need to educate themselves before they start popping off with stupid opinions.

  • Deborah J Kainauskas

    It’s not just “free speech”. It was violent. That is not a protected right.

  • Dave Kliman

    Yes. Next question?

  • Shartiblartfat

    If you work for me, and you say or do anything that hurts my business, you’re gone, like corn out of a goose!

  • Tim Thompson

    `At what point does this stop? Should a company be able to fire you because of the car you drive? What you eat? What you drink? Suppose you oppose seat belt laws, is that a fireable offence?

    • hightek

      If the employees actions are detrimental to the future of the business, and the future employment of all the other employees, then yes. That calculation is pretty straight forward.

    • hightek

      So should we rescind the At Will Employment laws that allow businesses to terminate employment without cause?

Author

Julia McEvoy

Julia McEvoy is the senior editor, features and enterprise for KQED News.

Julia got into reporting covering Chicago’s Latino communities for a Spanish-language TV news station, then began freelancing Latino-centric stories for public radio. That lead to radio documentary work, then to editing, and eventually executive producing Chicago Matters, an award-winning public affairs series.  Julia founded WBEZ’s Ear to the Ground mentorship program, bringing community contributors stories to air and on-line.

Julia’s editorial work has received a Peabody Award, a Casey Medal for Coverage of Children and Families, several Edward R. Murrow awards, as well as awards from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. and the Society for Professional Journalists.

Get in touch: jmcevoy@kqed.org or @juliamcevoy1

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