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Charlie Frank was a hot dog vendor at the Vet in the 1970s. "Daaag, Daaag for sale," he'd bellow as he worked in the aisles in the lower concourse. I can remember buying hot dogs from him regardless of my appetite just to hear him do his routine. Last week, I imitated his pitch for Emily Youcis, who brought her own identity to the role of a stadium vendor. For seven seasons, she's been selling pistachios at Citizens Bank Park with her own distinctive call.
"Oh yeah, well everyone needs their shtick, you know. I'm a salesman," she responded, seemingly unimpressed with my impersonation. Only Youcis won't be selling any more nuts at Phillies games. She's been fired by Aramark for her political speech off the job. She said she was told her "social media doesn't align" with Aramark's values.
"I'm a Trump supporter, a die-hard Trump supporter and I would say I am a white nationalist," she replied when I asked how she'd describe herself. "Now people have been calling me a white supremacist on TV, which I've never said."
So how does she define white nationalism?
"Basically, we just want to keep whites from becoming minorities in their own homeland," she replied. "I mean, if you see what's going on in Europe, native Germans are going to become a minority in about four years and in Britain the native British are already a minority and this is forced immigration, forced integration, forced assimilation, which is basically what you could call genocide. And then in the United States, whites are going to become a minority in just a few years. Nobody seems to care about it. People seem to encourage it. They seem to be celebrating it and, you know, whites built this country, white Americans are the backbone of this nation."
Those may sound like long-festering, deeply held convictions, but Emily is only 26 and her answer as to how long she's viewed herself as a white nationalist surprised me.
"I would say for, officially, maybe like only about three months. . . . Nobody wants to actually be associated with that term obviously; I mean, look what happened to me," she said. "So it took a while to actually get to that point that it's OK to stand up for your rights."
When I asked what's the most incendiary of her views, she didn't hesitate. "Jews dominate the media. Jews started communism," she said. And she still believes that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta are involved in a pedophile ring in Washington.
So is her right to work any more defensible than her abhorrent views?
Legally speaking, no. Avery Friedman, a civil rights attorney based in Cleveland, has followed her case. In a manner that Harry Kalas would have approved, he summarized her situation as follows in an email: "Batter up on constitutional, statutory and contract grounds:
"(1) STRIKE ONE: It's not a governmental employer, so forget arguing due process, First Amendment, etc., because no constitutional right is implicated (might be a surprise to your listeners), so she's out constitutionally.
"(2) STRIKE TWO: Pennsylvania has no law proscribing employment bias based on social media activity or political association, so she's out on the civil rights claim.
"(3) STRIKE THREE: Unless she's got a contract of a certain duration with defined 'cause' outs (like opprobrium), she's basically at-will (probably the case) and out on a contract claim."
Even if Aramark had the right to fire Youcis, was that the right call? I say yes, but it risks setting a dangerous precedent.
While Youcis describes herself as an animator, and says she was an internet celebrity before her pistachio persona took hold, there is no way this controversy would have become so prominent absent her summer job. The headlines don't say anything about her animation work; they are all tied to pistachio sales, a prominence she herself admits.
"Oh yeah," she said. "I would get people saying, 'We hear you on TV every night,' and Comcast would do close-ups of me. The baseball players would all wave to me from the bullpen and everything. Good time."
Like Charlie Frank, she was a ballpark celebrity because of her unique sales pitch. The stardom surely moved product, but brought with it responsibility that wouldn't apply to an anonymous vendor. She became a face of Aramark, even though Youcis says she never referenced her employer in her social media and "actually tried to keep that as far away from my job as possible."
"I would say all the politics came on my own time," she added. "This is my personal life. I never brought any of that into the stadium. I treated everyone with respect. I was a top-notch employee. I understand they have the right to terminate me for anything, but this is my personal life and I think people should have the right to freedom of speech. I mean, you don't see any Black Lives Matter people getting fired over these things and Black Lives Matter routinely shout 'Bang, bang, shoot, shoot, what's better than 15 dead cops? Sixteen dead cops.' I've never advocated for violence or anything."
Many will see the case as a no-brainer - Aramark is in the business of selling nuts, not being defined by one. But it sets up a dangerous precedent. In a world where everyone is a keystroke away from embarrassment, do we want to encourage termination of employees for speech on their own time? If so, there are many who ought to begin scrubbing their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.
Todd Bernstein, president of Global Citizen and founder of the Martin Luther King Day of Service, heard my interview with Youcis and remarked:
"I find her views to be repugnant, but I would fight for her right to express them, so long as it's the corner of 15th and Market. . . . I also understand why Aramark chose not to continue to employ her. We live in very scary times, where lying and fake news have become normalized."
Michael Smerconish can be heard 9 a.m. to noon on SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124 and seen hosting "Smerconish" at 9 a.m. Saturdays on CNN.
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