Amodei: My staffer who complained about high schooler has First Amendment rights, too
Congressman Mark Amodei said Thursday that his staffer who complained about a profane word used by a high school student had a First Amendment right to call the school, which then suspended the young man.
Amodei also said he plans to respond to the ACLU, which accused his office of retaliating against the high school student who used profanity in a conversation with the lawmaker’s staff during last week’s national gun violence protest.
“They sent me a letter and I’m going to write them back,” Amodei said, adding that his letter could come as soon as next week.
The Nevada Republican will make the case in the letter that while Noah Christiansen, a 17-year-old junior at Robert McQueen High School in Reno who called Amodei’s office, has First Amendment rights, so does Arturo Garzon, the congressional staffer with whom Christiansen spoke.
“They were pretty passionate and correct in terms describing this guy’s First Amendment rights, but…I think those apply to my guy too,” Amodei said.
Amodei acknowledged that he also sometimes uses profanity in public settings, but believes there’s a significant difference, and one key similarity with Christiansen’s case.
“I don’t call people I don’t know on the phone and drop F-bombs and...when I do use [profane] language in public, I am totally and completely responsible. Quite frankly, welcome to the club, young fellow,” Amodei said.
Amodei disagrees that his office retaliated against Christiansen, whose call coincided with last week’s nationwide student protest in which kids walked out of class for 17 minutes to demand tougher gun laws.
‘We’ll probably send something next week that says…’I would differ with some of your understanding of the facts’ and I think some of the reporting since then has cleared that up,” Amodei said. “He did not ask for... He didn’t ask for punishment. He reported what [my staff] thought was remarkable conduct out of hundreds of phone calls we got, and that’s it.”
He added that his office is still hearing about the incident. “We're still getting calls, mostly from out of state, saying mean things to us, but, you know what, some days that comes with the job." Amodei said.
The gun violence protest comes in response to the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. Seventeen people were killed and 17 more were wounded. Also still fresh in memory of Nevadans is the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting in Las Vegas on Oct. 1 that resulted in 58 deaths — the single deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
In his call, Christiansen pleaded for lawmakers to “get off their f—ing asses” and enact gun-reform legislation that would help keep children safe at school. He also asked the congressman’s office to support raising the minimum age to buy a gun and to ban bump stocks, the weapon modification that accelerates the rate of gunfire.
After the call, Garzon called the school and managed to reach the principal by chance, and relayed what had happened, without seeking any punishment or retribution, according to Amodei. Christiansen was subsequently suspended and the school also isn’t letting him assume his elected role as the class secretary-treasurer because of the incident, which Amodei said was the school’s call, not his office’s.
The incident attracted the attention of the ACLU of Nevada which sent Amodei a letter earlier this week seeking an apology for Christiansen because the call from the congressman’s staffer led to a two-day suspension.
The ACLU argued that Amodei’s staff’s retaliated against Christiansen, who was punished for exercising his First Amendment rights. The organization is acting on the student’s behalf and trying to get his school record cleared.
“It was inappropriate and unbecoming of your Congressional office to seek to have this student punished,” the ACLU letter said. “You owe this student a public apology for retaliating against him by enlisting the school to punish him on your behalf.”
Amodei has said he doesn’t plan to apologize because he doesn't believe his office did anything wrong.
As a staunch proponent of gun rights, Amodei has said that he is open to supporting legislation to add school-security personnel, ban bump stocks, raise the age to buy long guns and improve background checks. But he is wary of those seeking to take political advantage of the issue.
“If the objective is really school safety, then good,” Amodei said. “If the objective is to abolish the Second Amendment, then not so good.”
The ACLU Nevada's executive director, Tod Story, responded to Amodei Thursday evening.
“We at the ACLU of Nevada and the public would certainly welcome Congressman Amodei’s justification of his office’s retaliation against his constituent. While congressional staffers do have First Amendment rights, they do not have rights to retaliate against constituents by exposing their confidential conversations and communications," Story said. "Every constituent petitions the government with an expectation of privacy, if their opinion is to be made public, that choice is the constituents to make, not the Congressman’s or his staff’s. The oath the congressman swore to uphold applies to every constituent, not just the ones with whom he agrees. If Congressman Amodei does not believe constituent communications are private and confidential, his constituents should take heed.”
This story has been updated with a comment from ACLU Nevada Executive Director Tod Story.