Skokie Public Defender Sues To Be Able To Display Photo Holding Rifle

February 19, 2024 0 By JohnValbyNation

SKOKIE, IL — A longtime Cook County public defender says her constitutional rights were violated when her supervisors at the Skokie courthouse confiscated a photograph showing her holding a gun in front of an Israeli flag and told her not to display it again.

Debra Gassman began working with the public defender’s office as an intern and a law clerk before getting hired as an attorney in 1997, the year after she passed the bar.

In 2002, Gassman volunteered for the Israeli military to help with its protection in anticipation that Iraq would launch nuclear and chemical attacks, according to a lawsuit she filed Wednesday. During that trip, she was photographed at the Tel HaShomer army base smiling while holding an M-16 assault rifle in front of an Israeli flag.

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After she returned from Israel, Gassman alleges she prominently displayed an 11-inch print of the photo in her shared office at the Leighton Criminal Courts Building at 26th Street and California Avenue in Chicago for 18 years without any issues.

In October 2020, Gassman was transferred to the 2nd Municipal District courthouse in Skokie and again displayed it in her shared office. She says she never had any complaints about the photo — only compliments — until after the Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas attacks on Israel.

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When Gassman returned to work following the Columbus Day holiday on Oct. 10 — the first day of work since the internationally designated terrorist group’s cross-border offensive that resulted in about the deaths of about 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians — she was “upset to see that few seemed to care — or even were aware of — the travesty that had occurred in her adopted homeland,” according to her suit.

“She saw [Cook County Public Defender’s Office] staff doing personal online shopping, clearly oblivious to the mass murders and terrorist attacks happening in our world,” it said.

Gassman then decided to take the photo out of her office and put it on top of the employee mailbox, where other employees regularly place holiday decorations, art and cards, in an area that is not visible to members of the public.

“She did this to bring attention to the attacks that had occurred in Israel and the need to support the victims at this horrific time,” the suit said.

Deputy Public Defender Parle Roe-Taylor and First Assistant Rodney Carr then instructed the chief public defender in Skokie to take down the photo of Gassman smiling with the rifle, she alleges.

“They told her Skokie supervisors that the Photo was comparable to a Nazi swastika,” her complaint said.

Gassman complied and returned the photo to her own office, it said. But on Oct. 20, she was issued a written reprimand by Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell, a copy of which is included in her complaint.

Mitchell, the chief of the public defender’s office, notified her in writing that she had violated the office’s workplace violence policy.

“Displays of firearms can be perceived as threatening and therefore is, inconsistent with this policy,” Mitchell said.

The policy defines “workplace violence” as “written or verbal communications, whether direct or indirect, which are of a threatening, intimidating or coercive nature; the use or threat of physical force, stalking; vandalism or destruction of property; and the use or possession of any weapon and/or ammunition,” unless authorized by the county.

“While there is no evidence that you acted with malice, the posting of a picture of an employee holding a firearm [is] inappropriate for the workplace. Please remove any firearm related picture from public view,” Mitchell told Gassman.

“We understand that tragic world events likely motivated this display and may have compromised your judgment,” he added. “We have considered this in our decision not to pursue any disciplinary action at this time.”

On Oct. 30, Roe-Taylor entered Gassman’s private office and confiscated the photo while she was in court, according to the complaint. During a follow-up meeting, Roy-Taylor informed Gassman that posting the photo in her office counted as “public view” and forbade her from displaying it again.

Other employees of the public defender’s office have been permitted to have actual weapons — including guns and swords — inside their offices, and public defenders are known to congratulate each other with posts in the office, sometimes including guns, according to Gassman.

Gassman’s two-count suit alleges that the public defender’s office has violated her First Amendment rights by requiring her to remove the photo, confiscating it and prohibiting its prominent display.

The complaint also alleges that the public defender’s office policy forbidding speaking to the media about the office’s “policies, procedures or official positions on general matters,” does not adequately inform employees what topics they can discuss with the media and is, therefore, “impermissibly vague” and serves as an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech.

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The public defender’s lawsuit, which was first reported by CWBChicago, asks a judge to declare that the public defender violated her constitutional rights, issue an order permitting her to display the photo and award her attorney’s fees and costs.

A spokesperson for the public defender’s office said it is committed to establish a safe workplace for its employees.

“Last fall, Law Office management was made aware, by an employee complaint, that a Public Defender’s Office employee posted a picture of herself carrying a large firearm in front of a flag in a common area of our office,” it said.

“The Law Office responded to the complaint by requesting the employee who posted the picture of herself holding a firearm remove that picture from the common area. The employee complied and was not disciplined,” the statement continued. “The employee has had exclusive possession of the photo since it was returned to her in October 2023, and it has reportedly been displayed in her office since.”

Gassman’s attorney, Chicago-based employment lawyer David Fish, said the First Amendment protects her right to show the photograph as a statement of support of the nation of Israel.

“To mandate the removal of Debra’s photograph after the tragedy of October 7, when it was allowed for nearly a quarter of a century before, is shameful,” Fish said. “We look forward to vindicating Debra’s right to display her photo in this case as reaches federal court in Chicago.”

Related: Evanston Fires Chief Equity Staffer For Supporting Palestinians, Suit Alleges

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