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Mitch Edelman: Burns' letter to Ravens owner out of line

Football season has arrived. Until this year, Carroll County had a privileged relationship with the Ravens, with their summer training camp at McDaniel College. It must come as a surprise to some people in our community to discover that the team and one of its players, Brendon Ayandabejo, have been at the center of an unusual and emotionally charged public dispute having nothing at all to do with football.

Earlier this year, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill allowing same-sex marriages to be performed in the Free State, beginning in 2013. A successful petition drive to overturn the law began immediately after its passage. Proposition 6 will appear on the November general election ballot.

Ayandabejo, a long-time supporter of marriage equality, supports Prop 6, a fact noted by Democratic State Assembly representative Emmett Burns Jr. In an official letter dated Aug. 29, Burns, a social conservative, urged Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti to "take the necessary action, as a National Football Franchise Owner, to inhibit such expression from your employee and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions."

Burns' letter also asked Bisciotti to report back "immediately."

The letter received attention across the NFL and in the press. Many news organizations reported the story and the support Bisciotti and the NFLPA gave Ayandabejo. Chris Kluwe, the Minnesota Vikings' punter, responded emphatically, obscenely and passionately to Burns' letter.

"They won't ... overthrow the government ... because ... they have the same legal rights as the other 90 percent of our population, rights like Social Security benefits, childcare tax credits, family and medical leave to take care of loved ones, and COBRA health care for spouses and children. You know what having these rights will make gay Americans? Full-fledged citizens, just like everyone else, with the freedom to pursue happiness and all that that entails."

The San Francisco 49ers joined the Baltimore Orioles and many others worldwide to support the It Gets Better campaign to curtail bullying and gay-bashing. Even the macho National Football League accepts that change is inevitable.

Apart from the issue of gay marriage, I am astounded that any elected official could suggest, let alone demand the owner of any business suppress the First Amendment rights of one of his employees. That letter is so wrong in so many ways we cannot ignore: the First Amendment guarantees yours, mine and Ayandabejo's right to speak our minds on any issue. Burns' letter is an insult to any and all of us who believe in freedom of speech and the press.

It demanded Bisciotti, a private citizen, to take a public position on a matter up for vote. The demand came under Maryland Assembly letterhead, giving the appearance that Burns wrote in his official capacity. That kind of intimidation by an elected official is certainly unethical and probably violates more than one statute.

Had Biscotti complied with Burns' demands, he would have violated several labor laws. Ayandabejo acted as a private citizen, not as a Ravens' spokesman. Even Federal civil servants, whose rights of political speech are limited by the Hatch Act, are guaranteed the right to express their political opinions, just not on the job.

Burns' letter presumes to state the views of a group he doesn't represent, namely Ravens fans.

Finally, the letter demanded that Biscotti give Burns his immediate response. Burns seemed to use his position to coerce compliance from the Ravens owner, along with a threat to take action if he didn't.

Burns more-or-less retracted his letter, saying that Ayandabejo "has his First Amendment rights." Indeed! His retraction was a thimble of tepid water against the forest fire he started. Burns' reprehensible letter, not his attitude toward gays, disqualifies him from holding public office.

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