When Satire Is No Excuse: The Jeff Cox Affair

Now if Cox came to work like this, I take it all back...

Indiana deputy attorney general Jeff Cox tweeted “use live ammunition” in response to a tweet by progressive magazine Mother Jones that riot police had been ordered to remove union supporters from the Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison. Mother Jones published the tweet as evidence of what it believes is the predominant conservative mindset, and the progressive blogosphere was soon using his tweet as a rallying cry.

Cox was fired Wednesday. Quite correctly, too.

In his article published online, the Mother Jones reporter, Adam Weinstein, wrote that he confronted Cox regarding his aggressive tweet in an exchange on Twitter.

“He tweeted back that the demonstrators were ‘political enemies’ and ‘thugs’ who were ‘physically threatening legally elected officials,’ ” Weinstein wrote.”In response to such behavior, he said, ‘You’re damned right I advocate deadly force.’ He later called me a ‘typical leftist,’ adding, ‘Liberals hate police.’ ”

At the time of the exchange, Weinstein didn’t know Cox was the Indiana deputy attorney general, for he had listed his profession only as “lawyer” on his Twitter account. Cox was a heavy user of Twitter, and also had an opinion blog. A deputy attorney general since October 2003, he was one of more than 140 attorneys in the office.

The Attorney General’s spokesman said the office had no formal policy on social media but is developing them. [ And about time, too!] He said the employee handbook is clear that employees should conduct themselves in a professional manner during and after working hours. “We respect individuals’ First Amendment right to express their personal views on private online forums, but as public servants we are held by the public to a higher standard, and we should strive for civility,” Corbin said.

That’s right. For an attorney in a state attorney general’s office to send into the highly politicized web intentionally controversial and inflammatory statements is

  • Irresponsible
  • Reckless
  • Undignified
  • Uncivil

And something else…let me see..oh! Now I remember!

  • Unbelievably stupid!

The last would be enough, all by itself, to justify his dismissal. Someone who uses the Internet as much as Cox yet who doesn’t comprehend how his statements inevitably would reflect on his boss, the Attorney General, and his client, Indiana, has such wretched judgment that he cannot be trusted. Cox, however, feels mistreated. It was all satire, he says:

“Today I was fired from my position at the Office of the Indiana Attorney General for statements that I made on my personal Twitter account and blog Pro Cynic outside of work.This past weekend I was contacted by a far leftist blogger from San Francisco who didn’t like a recent Twitter post I made which was clearly political satire. My post used a ridiculous tone and solution to the challenges associated with the Wisconsin statehouse protests. In no way was my post meant to be taken literally and I don’t think any reasonable person would conclude otherwise…”

Except that many reasonable people, and unreasonable too, did conclude otherwise. Maybe those who were used to Cox’s “tone” from reading his comment regularly got his point, whatever it was, but public figures and professionals don’t usually engage in satire in public statements.

“…This post and many other outrageous comments made by me on either Twitter or my blog over the years have been a combination of serious political debate and over-the-top cynicism. This approach has successfully served to get people’s attention and draw them into a substantive debate on political issues of the day. I have never posted anything that related to my duties and responsibilities with the state. Nor have I ever used state resources or blogged during or at work…”

Ridiculous! Cox was a government attorney commenting on what he thought was appropriate government action. Everything he does or says in public—and the World Wide Web is as public as it gets—“relates to his duties and responsibilities.”

“The big question before us is whether or not public employees maintain their First Amendment rights once hired by the government. The Attorney General’s Office was well aware of my blog which started over seven years ago and at no time did they express any concern about its content.”

No, that’s not a question at all. A public employee can say whatever he or she wants, but if those words undermine his credibility, public trust and the government itself, he not only can but should be fired. Satire has to be recognized to be satire, and “I was only joking!” is one of the most popular last-ditch excuses for outrageous statements and conduct in human history. If an outrageous statement is made by Rush Limbaugh, Bill Maher, Jay Leno, Saturday Night Live, “The Onion,” Jonathan Swift, W.S. Gilbert and other entertainers, pundits and gadflies, they deserve the benefit of the doubt. If satire is attempted by supposedly serious professionals in government, however, they have an obligation to make their intentions clear to the dimmest bulb, and if they can’t, then they should leave the irony and tongue-in-cheek acts to those who are good at at.

For the record, another Cox post, on his blog, called Brandon Johnson  “a black teenage thug who was (deservedly) beaten up.” Johnson was the alleged victim in an Indianapolis police brutality case. Was this Cox’s idea of satire too? Or is it the typical sentiments of someone who would advocate “live ammo” to be used on protesters?

You can form your own opinion; as for me, I don’t believe Jeff Cox is a satirist. But whether he is or isn’t, he betrayed the Attorney General and the public trust with reckless statements, and earned his pink slip.

5 thoughts on “When Satire Is No Excuse: The Jeff Cox Affair

  1. I might have believed the first tweet was, if not satire, then harmless snark… until the follow-up. Most of us have probably said in jest that which someone somewhere interpreted as a serious commentary. But when that person asks, in effect, “you’re joking, right?”, we respond in the affirmative because we don’t want to sound to anyone as if we’re really advocating violence (or whatever).

    If nothing else, someone who works in an Attorney General’s office ought to have a little better understanding of the provisions of the 1st amendment.

    Yep, “unbelievably stupid” about sums it up.

      • Is “LOL” universally recognized in the Twitter and Internet worlds? If so, a blogger who is also employed by a public agency might save a lot of trouble by putting “LOL” at the beginning and end of anything meant to be satire.

        On the other hand, Swift did not mark “A Modest Proposal” in the typology of the times. A lot of people got very upset with him — which may be the raison d’etre of satire.

        But I did not see any historical accounts of Britons feasting on Irish babies.

  2. Jeff was not being satirical. He is the son of Channel Six reporter Norman Cox. As a child he spent a good portion of his time drawing “cartoons” strips about government issues including soldiers firing at groups of people. I once worked with his mother and she seemed rather proud to show her co-workers the drawings her “precocious” little boy had drawn. Pretty sick kid then, pretty sad adult now. Hope he gets some help.

  3. He made the mistake of believing that Internet Anonymity is for real. This is another reason why I post under my real name. What you post online stays there for the life of that website. Therefore, if I get a wild urge (as I do, at times) to post something deliberately offensive in response to some fruitcake, I’m given to pause and rethink. Of course, I still do, on occasion! But mainly, I leave that chore to (as you say) a professional. Like Ann Coulter!

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