Literary Agent's Firing over Parler, Gab Accounts Stirs Free Speech Debate

Literary agent Colleen Oefelein said she was never discouraged at work from posting about politics on social media, so it came as a surprise when she was fired on January 25 for using the conservative social media platforms Parler and Gab.

The New York-based literary agency she used to work for has been peppered with criticisms on social media for its decision to fire Oefelein. Some Facebook users referred to the agency's decision as censorship, while others called for an agency-wide ban.

"I will now be paying attention to the publisher of books and will not be purchasing any by this agency," a Facebook user commented on one of the agency's recent posts. "I wouldn't have cared before about your worldly stances, if you hadn't fired someone for having a view different than your own."

"Don't buy anything from this anti free speech agency," another Facebook user wrote.

"Make sure to boycott this agency and any writer who now uses them," wrote another.

Oefelein, who is based in Alaska, began working with the agency in February 2018. Much of her work focused on romance novels and Young Adult fiction. She said she had no interest in working on nonfiction or political books because she finds politics boring.

Oefelein said politics did permeate her work life in another way. She said her former colleagues often discussed politics during their monthly teleconference meetings—discussions that led her to believe she was more "middle of the road" politically than they were.

"I kind of lean right on some things and I lean left on some things," she told Newsweek. Her former colleagues all seemed to be "pretty much on the left," she added.

Parler app literary agent fired
A literary agent who was fired last week for having Parler and Gab accounts said she was never discouraged from posting political content on her personal social media accounts. In the photo above, an illustrative image of a human hand with a mobile device showing the logo for the social media platform Parler is seen in a darkened room in Lafayette, California, on January 21, 2021. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty

Oefelein said the news of her termination last month was "perplexing" partly because of those discussions among colleagues and partly because she publicly acknowledged her shift to Parler more than two months earlier on her personal Twitter account. Her colleagues also shared political content on their personal Twitter accounts, and Oefelein said she felt free to do the same.

"They all tweeted their political opinions. And I was always under the impression that, hey, it's okay—because that's their opinion," Oefelein told Newsweek. "They're allowed to have an opinion, they're allowed to tweet what they want, right?"

In a series of tweets on January 25, the agency's president, Jennifer De Chiara, announced that the agency recently became aware of one agent's use of Parler and Gab.

"The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency was distressed to discover this morning, January 25th, that one of our agents has been using the social media platforms Gab and Parler. We do not condone this activity, and we apologize to anyone who has been affected or offended by this," De Chiara tweeted. "The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency has in the past and will continue to ensure a voice of unity, equality, and one that is on the side of social justice."

The Twitter thread ended by mentioning Oefelein. "As of this morning, Colleen Oefelein is no longer an agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency," the tweet said.

Oefelein confirmed her termination in a tweet that same day.

"Well thanks Twitter and @JDLitAgency," Oefelein wrote. "I just got fired because I'm a Christian and a conservative."

De Chiara's tweets are no longer accessible to users she does not authorize to follow her account. Screenshots taken on January 25 by Newsweek show her tweets about the decision to fire Oefelein, as well as an exchange she had with Twitter user @YaWhispers, who appeared to have alerted De Chiara to a November 12 announcement Oefelein made on Twitter alerting her followers of her new Parler account. Oefelein referenced Gab on January 12 as another platform on which she had an account.

Parler was pulled offline last month, but Gab is still up and running. According to Newsweek's review of Oefelein's Gab account, she posted only once. The post from January 10 was a call to connect with romance authors who had book proposals ready for review.

Oefelein said the email she received from De Chiara terminating her associate agent position referenced a political backlash on Twitter from users reacting to Oefelein's Parler and Gab accounts but did not specify any posts in particular that were deemed problematic.

"She didn't mention any posts. And honestly, there were no posts—well, there was one post on Gab, but it was the same exact post that I had pinned to my Twitter page," Oefelein said, referring to the call for romance book proposals. "I was a little perplexed. I don't live under a rock. I know what the climate is like. I shouldn't have been surprised."

Oefelein told Newsweek she is not currently pursuing legal action against her former employer regarding her termination—and Gene Policinski, a senior fellow for the First Amendment with the Freedom Forum Institute, told Newsweek that Oefelein likely wouldn't be successful in contesting her termination on First Amendment grounds since both New York and Alaska are at-will employment states.

"This is a private employer—and if you're an at-will employee, they don't really owe you a reason for dismissal," Policinski said. "We might say, 'Well, with a lack of direction, a lack of instruction, that's not a good business practice.' But again, that would not be a First Amendment violation."

The criticisms Facebook users have posted online in reaction to Oefelein's firing indicate that the "marketplace of ideas" is alive and well, Policinski said, adding that it is possible more experiences like Oefelein's will play out in the months to come. But this isn't the first time the U.S. has navigated through times like these.

"We go through these things periodically in our society, I think, where we have this sort of fear of the new. And then we sort of moderate that over time. We go, 'That's not that bad,'" Policinski said. "But unfortunately, individuals suffer in the real time. They don't suffer over the long term."

Policinski told Newsweek he believes the U.S. is at the beginning of that process of moderation when it comes to the internet.

"We forget that the internet is little more than a teenager. This is really the first great collision, you might say, of values around the internet," he said. "I like to say the internet in its first 20, 30 years has gone from being a toy to a tool to a necessity. And I think when things become a necessity, we take them seriously. And sometimes these conflicts are what we finally have to get engaged with and develop our own set of rules."

Policinski said those rules would ideally be hashed out in the "court of public opinion." While the online criticisms levied at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency suggest that debate is already happening, Oefelein said she knows many people who are hesitant to discuss such topics online due to a fear of retaliation.

"I've gotten thousands of messages from people, so many that I haven't even been able to read them all yet," Oefelein said. "The overwhelming message that I'm getting from other authors especially, and even from some agents and publishers, is that they want to send their support, but they can't do it publicly, a lot of them, because they're scared. Because they either had a Parler account too or they don't necessarily always vote Democrat, or they don't consider themselves political at all, and they kind of just want to be under the radar. And so they don't want to support somebody like me that might be seen as being political."

Despite these concerns, Oefelein said the authors she represented prior to her termination have all decided to stick with her thus far. She said she isn't worried about her career in the long term either, because has been the subject of media attention before (the attack she endured by her now-husband's ex, former astronaut Lisa Nowak, was covered extensively in the news in 2007).

"I know how these things go, and I'm not worried about what people think. I'm really not," Oefelein said. "I know who I am, and I know that I didn't do anything wrong, so I'm okay."

If terminations like Oefelein's become frequent, Policinski said American society may come up with answers to its questions about how and when to moderate the internet faster.

"We may see such dramatic examples in a short period of time that the process doesn't take long at all," he told Newsweek. "I think the court of public opinion may be a better place to solve this than the court of law. And that's probably the court that's going to act first."

Depending on what the court of public opinion decides, new rules may come into play regarding the grounds on which employers can and cannot fire employees.

"We have made decisions that you can't be fired for your race, because of your religion, your ethnic background. There may be a desire, if this accelerates, to say because of your political views," Policinski said.

Newsweek contacted De Chiara for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.