Baltimore Symphony Fires Flutist Who Shared Covid Conspiracy Theories
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra said on Thursday that it had fired a musician who provoked controversy earlier this year when she shared Covid-19 conspiracy theories and other misinformation on social media.
The musician, Emily Skala, 59, the orchestra’s principal flutist for more than three decades, shared posts casting doubt on the efficacy of vaccines and masks. Her posts drew criticism from musicians, audience members and donors in Baltimore and beyond.
The orchestra said it was dismissing Skala because she had repeatedly violated its policies, though it did not offer details except to say that the problems went beyond social media posts. Skala said in an interview that the orchestra’s leaders had also accused her of breaching safety protocols by not submitting to coronavirus tests before visiting the Baltimore Symphony’s offices in the spring.
“Unfortunately, she has repeated the conduct for which she had been previously disciplined, and dismissal was the necessary and appropriate reaction to this behavior,” Peter Kjome, the orchestra’s president and chief executive, said in a statement.
The Baltimore Sun reported earlier on the orchestra’s decision to fire Skala.
The dispute is unfolding amid a heated debate over the rights of individuals as local governments and businesses work to bring the pandemic under control by imposing mask mandates and requiring vaccines. There are also widespread concerns about the rapid spread of anti-vaccine messaging on social media platforms.
Skala vowed to challenge her dismissal, saying the orchestra had created a hostile environment. She said she was being attacked for expressing unpopular views and that the orchestra’s leaders failed to protect her from harassment.
“When you’re a target, every day is a trap,” Skala said in the interview. “They just punish me for being me.”
Skala said she was working with the Musicians’ Association of Metropolitan Baltimore, the union that represents the orchestra’s players, to file a formal grievance. The union declined to comment.
Orchestra players are often tenured, like university professors, and have strong protections against being fired. Last year, the New York Philharmonic, which had fired two players over allegations of unspecified sexual misconduct, was forced by an arbitrator to reinstate them.
But businesses often have wide latitude to dismiss employees they consider to be troublesome, so long as they do so in accordance with collective bargaining agreements, legal experts say. “People can be fired if what they say or how they behave is disruptive to the purpose or the culture,” Kathleen Cahill, an employment lawyer in Maryland, said in an interview. “Employees often don’t have the ‘freedom’ and ‘First Amendment rights’ they think they do.”
Amid the pandemic, employers will likely have even greater latitude to require employees to follow policies designed to keep workplaces safe, Cahill added.
Skala shared false theories suggesting that the coronavirus was created in a laboratory in North Carolina; she also shared posts raising concerns about the safety of vaccines. In the interview, she said she suffered from autoimmune disorders and was distressed by efforts to mandate vaccines. She said she did not believe she was required to get tested for Covid-19 before visiting the orchestra’s offices to meet with staff there, since she had been suspended and was no longer performing.
“I’ve been misunderstood,” she said. “I feel I am standing in truth.”
Earlier this year, Skala angered many of her colleagues for sharing posts questioning the results of the 2020 presidential election. She was also criticized for saying that Black families needed to do more to support their children’s classical music studies in emails to colleagues about efforts to increase diversity at the Baltimore Symphony. (The emails were later leaked and posted on Twitter.) She also described in one of the leaked messages feeling discrimination early in her career as “a female gentile in a flute section of middle- to old-aged Jewish men.”
The orchestra did not mention those comments in dismissing Skala. But in February, when Skala’s remarks about the coronavirus and election fraud began to circulate, it issued a statement distancing itself. “Ms. Skala does not speak for the B.S.O., nor do her statements reflect our core values or code of conduct grounded in humanity and respect,” the orchestra said at the time.
Skala’s critics said they were pleased with the orchestra’s decision to dismiss her. Melissa Wimbish, a soprano in Baltimore, posted the leaked emails on Twitter in February. Wimbish, who has performed with the orchestra, also organized an online petition calling for Skala to be punished, which gathered more than 1,000 signatures.
“They have this responsibility to react to these statements and distance themselves,” Wimbish said in an interview, referring to the orchestra’s leaders. “It’s good to see there’s some justice.”
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