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Whistleblowers and Isben's "Enemy of the People"

The National Whistleblower Center will hold a panel discussion and reception following a presentation of "Enemy of the People" by Henrik Ibsen on Tuesday, 17 October 2006 at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. I received an invitation because of my membership in the Whistleblower Center. I won't be able to attend, but I will be in Washington a couple of weeks before that and hope to see a performance.

Just this weekend, the Shakespeare Theatre sent me "Asides" magazine with the details of the production. (I was a season ticket holder when I lived in the D.C. area.) The magazine also makes the connection between the play and whisteblowers.

In case you have forgotten the story of "Enemy of the People," here are a few exceprts from director Kjetil Bang-Hansen's statement to the cast at the first rehearsal:

The action of An Enemy of the People centers on two brothers: Peter and Thomas Stockmann. ...

In the first act, we learn that Thomas, the doctor, has discovered that the town’s new baths–the main source of income for the town–that the water of these baths is polluted. A health hazard. Surrounded by his family and friends, he is celebrated as the hero and savior of the town, its leading citizen. In the second act, the play takes a new direction. It shifts from Dr. Stockmann’s discovery to how different political groups in the town want to use this discovery for their own political means. There is an election coming, and the doctor’s discovery has a broader scope than he thought. ...

In the third act, we move from the private circle to the editor’s office at the newspaper, to the political arena. And slowly the play is moving away from the questions about the water. It becomes less and less a discussion about what to do about the health problems at the baths, and more and more a fight for power. (This is precisely what we see in our own society: the fight for power makes it more and more difficult to do anything about what we want to change.) ...

With the fifth act, we return to Dr. Stockmann’s house. He’s lost his job. He’s lost his house. His daughter and his friend have lost their jobs. He has nothing left, and the town is taking its revenge for his failed one-man revolution. But he still won’t give up, and his last word is the famous line: “The strongest man in the world is the one who stands most alone.” This is heroic, but unfortunately a lie. Doctor Stockmann is not John Wayne riding alone into the sunset. What we see on stage is a tragic, terrible, ironic ending to a subtle and disturbing play. And the water is still running just as contaminated as before.…

Another article brings the point home to us here and now by quoting a conversation from the play and making a point about the rights of public employees today:

Mayor: As an employee, you have no right to any independent convictions.

Dr. Stockmann: No right…?

Mayor: As an employee, I said. As a private person, God knows, that's something else. But as a subordinate staff member of the Baths, you have no right to express any conviction that conflicts with your superiors.

Sadly, this very position was recently supported by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling (see Garcetti et al v. Ceballos) that when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, they are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communication from employer discipline.

Even though the Constitution does not protect whistleblowers, many state and federal laws do. We must work to make those laws stronger and to pass additional laws to fill in the gaps in protection for whistleblowers.

This entry was posted by Edward at 8:51 PM, 17 September 2006 | Categories: Whistleblowers


The picture above was made in 1914 by the Birmingham Engraving Co. This reproduction is from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.

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