Baltimore orchestra fires principal flutist who spread conspiracy theories
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has fired its principal flutist, months after distancing itself from her social media posts that spread misinformation by questioning the safety of the coronavirus vaccines, the efficacy of face masks and the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
The orchestra offered only the broadest outline of its decision to dismiss Emily Skala, but its statement suggests there were multiple violations of multiple policies. Leaked workplace emails from Skala also had come under scrutiny.
The BSO president and CEO, Peter Kjome, said the musician had been fired under the progressive discipline policy agreed to with the Musicians’ Association of Metropolitan Baltimore.
“Ms Skala has had discipline imposed upon her over these past few months for violating several policies; unfortunately, she has repeated the conduct for which she had been previously disciplined, and dismissal was the necessary and appropriate reaction to this behavior,” the BSO statement said.
The firing comes roughly six months after the orchestra publicly rebuked her for controversial social media posts. She had been suspended from work duties and was notified by phone on Tuesday that she had lost her job. The 33-year-veteran of Baltimore’s symphony has consulted with lawyers and is exploring her options.
When asked about her social media posts spreading misinformation about the safety of the coronavirus vaccine, she said: “I did all of this basically because I wanted to protect the orchestras of the country. I wanted as few people, as few musicians, to be lost.”
In a Wednesday phone interview with the Associated Press, she also suggested work relationships between her and “younger members” of the BSO had worsened over the last year. She asserted that younger colleagues had spread “false allegations” against her and expressed being uncomfortable being on stage with her. She believes the BSO should have rebuked them.
“They [the BSO] cowered in the face of strong emotional reactions and they enabled the emotional reactions to dominate the workplace,” she said.
One incident that she believes led to her dismissal occurred on 23 July, when she went to Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to hand in a tax form. She declined to wear mask and had not had a Covid-19 test as is required by BSO. She attempted to open the door to hand her form to a security guard. Skala said symphony officials interpreted this as violating the terms of the suspension barring her from the building.
She asserted that the BSO violated her constitutional rights, including freedom of speech, and “committed several crimes against me”.
Gautam Hans, a technology law and free speech expert at Vanderbilt University, said a quick review of the basic facts suggest that the BSO flutist probably had a record of noncompliance with company practices. He said the first amendment generally applied to the government, not private entities, and businesses had a great amount of leeway in their decisions.
“Of course, there might be an issue about whether, as she claims, that record was scant or manufactured. But that’s much more of a employment law question than a free speech one,” Hans said in an email.
In February, symphony officials issued a statement saying they did not “condone or support” the views expressed in Skala’s social media posts and added that her statements did not “reflect our core values or code of conduct grounded in humanity and respect”.
Skala’s firing was applauded by Melissa Wimbish, an opera and contemporary singer who publicly posted leaked emails that Skala had written to BSO players after an online meeting last year.
Critics said the content of Skala’s emails were racist and antisemitic, which she denies.
Among other things, Skala wrote that BSO should not publicly support the Black Lives Matter movement because it would be excessively “political”, adding that she thought it was a scheme led by top Democrats and supported by the billionaire philanthropist George Soros – a baseless conspiracy theory.
“This behavior is especially harmful to our community, not to mention visiting artists, patrons, and students. As a Black woman who was hired by the BSO many times, it was painful to see the lack of action and care in addressing this matter. It opened my eyes to a side of the organization I didn’t know existed,” she told the AP.
Wimbish, who is not a BSO member, said the symphony’s decision to fire Skala was a good first step in making it a “more equitable place” for Baltimore, a majority-Black city.