Man Fired For Looking At Gun Web Sites

(AP / CBS)
It's not unusual for employees to be fired for browsing pornographic Web sites at work. But a Pennsylvania gun owner named Tony Jackson may have been the first person ever fired for looking at Web sites featuring gun parts.

Jackson worked at a Lotus Notes administrator at Planco, a subsidiary of Hartford, Conn.-based insurance company The Hartford. He's a firearms instructor and self-described Second Amendment advocate who, while at work in May 2007, visited Web sites including shotgun maker Mossberg and Impact Guns's online store because he and his wife were planning on going skeet shooting and she needed a replacement part for her shotgun.

When Jackson was searching the Web for a replacement shotgun stock, supervisor Christie Vazquez -- who admitted in a subsequent deposition to being "very anti-gun" and had quarreled with him before about politics -- noticed what he was doing. Vazquez said she was scared because it was only a few weeks after the Virginia Tech massacre (see CBS News video), so she promptly reported her colleague's Web browsing to Planco's human resources department. Vazquez also informed the HR department that Jackson owned guns and was a member of the National Rifle Association.

You can guess what happened next: according to court documents, the HR representative, Jamie Davis, replied that reporting the visits to Mossberg.com and other sites was "the right thing" to do, and ordered the information technology department to investigate Jackson's Internet activity. After receiving a list of Web sites visited, Davis recommended that Jackson be placed on leave, which the company authorized. Planco disabled Jackson's front door and computer access and arranged for undercover police to be at the building the next morning.

(A side note: Jackson suffered a heart attack and stroke in January 2006, and was on medical leave for three months as a result. Later that year, his annual review from Vazquez said he worked hard but did not meet expectations, a conclusion that Jackson believes arose from discrimination relating to his decision to take medical leave. In fact, just a few weeks before the gun-Web-site incident, Jackson told HR he believed the unflattering review was a response to his medical condition.)

There is no evidence that Jackson was a violent person, and Davis later acknowledged that the list of Web sites were shopping sites that didn't have any violent pictures or anything that alarmed her. Nevertheless, Vazquez and another supervisor claimed they were concerned for their safety, and Planco fired Jackson six days later.

In October 2008, Jackson filed a lawsuit against Planco in federal district court in Philadelphia alleging that the gun-Web-site issue was a transparent pretext to fire him because of his medical condition.

The lawsuit, filed by Exton, Penn. attorney Mark Scheffer, noted that Jackson and supervisor Vazquez had -- at least at one point -- enjoyed a friendly relationship. Jackson, who has a legal concealed carry permit in Pennsylvania, accompanied Vazquez when she was hunting for apartments in dodgy areas of Philadelphia. He gave her a tour of the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he used to work, and took Vazquez to a shooting range and showed her how to use a gun. (She confirmed in a later deposition (PDF) that she enjoyed the outing.) Another employee who worked in the same department said he heard Vazquez ask Jackson about purchasing a handgun for protection.

Planco's response to the lawsuit, outlined in a 31-page legal brief (PDF), is simple: it had "legitimate concerns about employee safety" because "Jackson, an admitted gun enthusiast who owns a sizable gun collection, including an Uzi," was browsing gun-related Web sites. Planco said its managers decided to fire Jackson, who has "an apparent fascination with guns," rather than "risk the potential safety of other Planco employees."

(On the other hand, why would Planco's supervisors, all of whom knew that Jackson was a gun aficionado, suddenly be alarmed merely because they noticed he was shopping for replacement gun parts? Especially when one went shooting with him outside of work hours and enjoyed it?)

Planco also argued that Jackson violated the company's Internet policy (PDF), which would normally block access to gun-related Web sites through filtering software, by visiting them when the filter was down for maintenance. The policy broadly prohibits accessing "offensive" or "inappropriate" material, but doesn't mention gun sites; Jackson says the policy didn't apply to sites like Mossberg.com, and notes that plenty visits by other employees to non-work related Web sites went unpunished.

On September 29, U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell agreed with Planco and granted the company summary judgement, saying there wasn't enough evidence that Jackson suffered unlawful discrimination. "Jackson has not met his burden of showing that a discriminatory reason more likely motivated Planco," Dalzell wrote.

On Wednesday, I sent this note to Tim Benedict, the director of media relations at Planco's parent company, The Hartford:
Planco's policy says employees may not visit "inappropriate" web sites, but does not explicitly list gun sites as off-limits. Nevertheless, Jackon's at-work web browsing (he was shopping for firearms, apparently) alarmed co-workers and prompted him to be fired in May 2007. So I guess my questions to you are these: Does Planco/The Hartford believe employees should be fired if they visit gun sites at work? How about other time-wasting sites not relevant to work, like ESPN.com or Facebook?

Benedict replied on Thursday afternoon, pointing me to Planco's legal briefs and saying "I can't comment beyond that." If any readers know more about Planco's and The Hartford's Internet policies, I'd love to hear about it.

Update 1:19 p.m. ET Fri: A reader who works at a Silicon Valley startup with pro-gun management just sent me this e-mail message, which jokes: "Actually, at [startup name deleted] we have a very firm policy that we audit our employees' browsing logs, and anyone found not to be browsing gun sites on a regular basis is disciplined."




Declan McCullagh is a correspondent for CBSNews.com. He can be reached at declan@cbsnews.com. You can bookmark the Taking Liberties site here, or subscribe to the RSS feed.
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    Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.

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