Guard who was fired over anti-Muslim meme is reinstated

Apr 6, 2023, 9:27 AM

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A Connecticut prison guard who was fired in 2021, several years after posting what was determined by the state to be an anti-Muslim meme on Facebook, has been reinstated to his job.

An arbitrator ruled in February that Anthony Marlak’s termination was an excessive response by the state Department of Correction and reduced the punishment to a 25-day suspension.

Marlak, who served as a correctional officer for 14 years, returned to his job at the Garner Correctional Institution in March, he told The Associated Press on Thursday.

The Connecticut Chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations had called for the firing of Marlak two years ago citing a meme he posted on Facebook in 2017, which it said depicted five apparently Muslim men hanging from nooses with the caption, “Islamic Wind Chimes.”

Marlak, an Air Force veteran, has acknowledged that he posted the meme, but said the caption on his post read “ISIS Wind Chimes” and was meant to target the extremist group and not Muslims in general.

The picture used in the meme actually showed five men being executed in Iran in 2010 for being homosexual, Marlak’s attorneys have said.

In his termination letter, the state told Marlak that, “The type of speech posted threatens the safety of staff and inmates who are Muslim.”

“I honestly love the Muslim religion,” Marlak said Thursday. “I think it’s a very beautiful religion. I was welcomed back by our prison’s imam, who is a great man and asked me how I was doing.”

The Council on American Islamic Relations did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

In seeking reinstatement, the union argued, in part that the post had been made on a private Facebook page and the termination violated Marlak’s right to free speech.

Arbitrator Michael Ricci ruled the state had not proven the post, on a since deleted account, referred to the Islamic religion, but disagreed that Marlak could not be disciplined for speech posted on Facebook.

“This right is not an absolute and must be balanced with the employer’s ability to run an efficient and effective entity,” he wrote. “The record does not substantiate that a termination will best serve the rights of the employee and the needs of the employer; however, a suspension of substance will hopefully rectify the issue and satisfy the aim of discipline in labor law to fix and not punish.”

He also ruled that Marlak must be compensated for lost pay and benefits.

“On a personal level the arbitrator finds the ISIS image severe, caustic and inflammatory but fairness dictates that the ruling be devoid of personal biases and the ruling must be based on reasonableness, fairness and fact,” he wrote.

The Department of Correction declined to comment on the case, citing its policy “not to comment on issues pertaining to individuals who have pending litigation against the agency.”

Marlak has a federal employment discrimination lawsuit pending against the state, but declined to comment on the status of that case or how much money he is seeking, noting he was able to keep his seniority.

“I’m just going to say it was an unfortunate experience,” he said. “Things are starting to come back to normal and I’m really happy now.”

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Guard who was fired over anti-Muslim meme is reinstated