Ed, Note: The following guest post is by Alex Bunin, the Harris County (Houston) Public Defender, formerly the Federal Defender for the Northern District of New York, with regard to the New York Legal Aid Society’s treatment of Appellate Squawk.
Blawger Appellate Squawk’s May post, “Are you a cissy?” drew scrutiny from management in the office where Squawk is an assistant public defender. The post satirically described an exchange by an assistant public defender with a defendant in a holding cell.
The lawyer repeats by rote a list of questions meant to determine the client’s chosen gender identity. The defendant grows uneasy and then angry with the lawyer’s failure to sense the client’s potential danger from cell mates because of the implication he may not be masculine. The humor of the post – and it is funny – is not at the expense of persons who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. The satire is about how one-size-fits-all policies (no matter how well-intended), can dehumanize clients.
Even the title is inoffensive. “Cissy” is a play on the term “cisgender,” which means a person who identifies their gender as their birth sex. It was not “sissy” – traditionally, a demeaning term for a male who appears effeminate.
I write, not just because Squawk is a friend whose work I have admired for years, but because I am management. I have established and managed public defender offices for 22 years [Southern District of Alabama 1995-99, Northern District of New York 1999-2010, District of Vermont 1999-2006, Harris County (Houston), TX 2010- date]. Management in a public defender’s office is often placed on the defensive because of issues that are out of their control.
The most common are too many cases and not enough money, but any employee can cause an investigation of the office. When these issues arise, there may be few persons in places of power willing to defend the office. There is no single answer about how to address these challenges except to act on principle and not from fear or inflexibility.
One of the principles to uphold is to allow employees to speak their minds. Since most public defender offices are government agencies, or heavily government funded, speech is a First Amendment issue. That means management must balance employee speech with clients’ representation, both with constitutional implications.
Since I do not believe any clients will be harmed by Squawk’s post – and it has both political and literary value – it is an easy call in favor of speech.