Iowa salesman fired for controversial political speech wins jobless benefits

By: - March 31, 2022 2:51 pm

An Iowa judge has awarded unemployment benefits to Nicholas Hansel, who was fired from his job after making a political speech that sparked accusations of racism. (Documents courtesy of Iowa Workforce Development; inset photo from video by United Parents)

An Iowa judge has awarded unemployment benefits to an insurance salesman fired from his job after making a political speech that sparked accusations of racism.

Nicholas Hansel was working as a salesman for the Arthur J. Gallagher Service Company, a multinational insurance agency with 40,000 employees, when he ran for a seat on the North Scott Community School Board last September.

According to state records, the sole reason for Hansel’s dismissal was a brief public speech he gave in support of his candidacy. The speech, delivered on Sept. 20 near a school building, was delivered on Hansel’s own time. Although he made no mention of his employment with Gallagher, Hansel’s job required him to market and sell insurance products within the district and to the school district itself.

During the speech, Hansel called for an educational environment free of overt political influence and indoctrination, and he referenced what a judge later described as “common Republican talking points on hot-button educational and cultural issues.”

At one point, Hansel stated that his child was being educated in school on “microaggressions,” a term that is commonly used to describe subtle or unintentional prejudices demonstrated toward racial or ethnic minorities or groups of various sexual orientation.

In a remark that later sparked allegations of racism, Hansel said during his speech: “Whatever you want to support, support it. But when you walk into North Scott, I want it to be white. I don’t, uh, maybe white’s not the best word. I don’t want it to be political. If you’re left, if you’re right, it doesn’t matter. I want you to be about academics.”

During the speech, Hansel also spoke of his children facing difficulties due to their support of former president Donald Trump. “I’m running because I don’t want your children to labeled a Hitler supporter – and mine were because they supported Trump,” he said.

Hansel also made reference to a school board meeting where “reverse prejudice” was discussed, adding, “Leave the LGBT flag and the Trump flag at home. Leave these political agendas and assumptions at home.”

Immediately after the speech, Hansel was asked to clarify the “white” comment, and said he used the word to describe political neutrality. “I apologize for using the color,” he said, adding that the response to his use of the word “white” spoke to “the environment that we’re in. Are we hyper-sensitive to color? Are we hyper-sensitive to gender? … My goodness, that’s kind of what we’ve got to stop.”

Hansel’s speech was subsequently uploaded to various social media sites, including Twitter, and became the focus of local television news stories, prompting Hansel to tell WQAD, “I’m not racist.” The speech also generated thousands of comments on social media, and at least a few people contacted Hansel’s employer to complain.

According to state records, Gallagher’s branch manager, Chris Behnke, contacted Hansel and told him he was being fired. Hansel reportedly asked whether Behnke was joking, and then asked Behnke whether he had actually heard the speech. Behnke allegedly said that was not important, and reiterated that he had to let Hansel go.

Hansel applied for unemployment benefits, which the company challenged. Initially, Iowa Workforce Development denied Hansel’s claim. He appealed that ruling, and the matter went before Administrative Law Judge James Timberland at a hearing in January.

At the hearing, a Gallagher executive conceded Hansel’s speech was an exercise of free speech, but asserted the speech was also divisive, violated unspecified company policies regarding diversity and inclusion, and violated unspecified policies in the company’s code of business conduct.

At the hearing, however, company officials were unable to cite any specific policy that was violated.

Timberland recently issued a ruling in Hansel’s favor. He noted that while Hansel’s comments “were the sort that an audience of one political outlook would embrace and another would abhor,” the evidence showed he was fired for no reason that would disqualify him from being eligible for unemployment benefits.

Hansel’s speech on schools, Timberland ruled, “was constitutionally protected free speech, had no reasonable nexus with the employment, did not constitute misconduct in connection with the employment, and cannot serve as a basis for disqualifying the claimant for unemployment insurance benefits.”

Hansel lost the election last fall, finishing fifth among six candidates vying for three seats on the school board.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.