Skip to main content
Main content
Josh Shapiro

Shapiro orders state employees to avoid 'scandalous' conduct amid Gaza protests, raising free speech concerns

by Stephen Caruso and Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA |

Gov. Josh Shapiro delivers his 2024 budget address in the Pennsylvania Capitol on Feb. 6.
Commonwealth Media Services

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan, and nonprofit newsroom producing investigative and public-service journalism that holds power to account and drives positive change in Pennsylvania. Sign up for our free newsletters.

HARRISBURG — Amid protests over the war in Gaza, Gov. Josh Shapiro has quietly revised his administration’s code of conduct to bar state employees from engaging in “scandalous or disgraceful” behavior — actions that could lead to discipline or termination, Spotlight PA has learned.

The vaguely worded update, which went into effect last week without the public fanfare of some executive orders, is raising alarm among First Amendment advocates concerned that it could be used to unconstitutionally curtail free speech.

It has also heightened fears among pro-Palestinian and Muslim American groups that employees who express opinions that differ from the Democratic governor’s stance on the war could be unfairly punished.

In a May 8 email to cabinet secretaries, a Shapiro administration official wrote that the need for “moral clarity is especially pronounced today, as antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hate speech are increasing across not only Pennsylvania, but nationally and globally.”

“The administration supports free speech, consistent with the First Amendment, but that speech may never incite violence, encourage people to violate the law, or harass others,” wrote Neil R. Weaver, who heads the Office of Administration.

“Hate speech,” Weaver wrote, can take many forms, from “social media posts, to boycotts, to graffiti, to public confrontations.”

“For the time we hold these positions of public trust, it is vital to maintain the confidence of the good people of Pennsylvania,” he wrote.

Shapiro, one of the country’s most prominent Jewish politicians, has taken a central role in condemning antisemitism and what he sees as weak responses to it in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, which killed 1,200 Israelis. As protests against Israel’s war in Gaza — where the Palestinian death toll now tops 35,000 — have escalated, Shapiro has argued some demonstrations have crossed a line into bigotry.

Witold J. Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said the vagueness of Shapiro’s amended order could violate free speech protections enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. He also said it is too subjective.

“If an employee off the job posts, ‘From the river to the sea,’ is that something the governor would consider disgraceful and scandalous?” Walczak asked of a decades-old phrase that supporters of Palestinians say is a call for freedom and peace but which some Jews perceive as a call for Israel’s destruction.

In an email, Shapiro spokesperson Manuel Bonder said the policy applies to all commonwealth employees, and that any alleged misconduct allegations will be “evaluated individually and on their own merits.”

“Employees are, of course, able to exercise their First Amendment rights under the law,” said Bonder.

The revision does not define scandalous or disgraceful conduct, which the order says is prohibited both “on or off duty.” Nor does it specify who would enforce the provisions, or how. It does say that anyone who fails to comply could face penalties ranging from a reprimand to a loss of employment.

The language is identical to a passage within the 140-page human resources manual for commonwealth employees viewed by Spotlight PA. Bonder said the code of conduct was updated as part of a “larger effort to modernize” the policy, “some provisions of which are more than 40 years old.”

“Secretary Weaver’s comments were explicitly in reference to actions involving hate speech that incites violence, encourages people to violate the law, or harasses others,” Bonder added. The administration says it doesn’t monitor social media posts by its employees.

Bonder did not answer a question about whether participating in a pro-Palestinian protest would violate the amended executive order. One such protest occurred last week outside the governor’s official residence in Harrisburg, with demonstrators calling for the state to divest from defense contractor Lockheed Martin.

Bryn Mawr lawyer Mark Schwartz, who has handled cases involving free speech and whistleblower protections, called Shapiro’s code of conduct amendment “so overbroad it's ridiculous.”

“Scandalous behavior — what does that mean?” Schwartz asked. “Anybody at any time could be accused of anything.”

He added, “It’s a standard that is impossible to adhere to because it's impossible to understand what it applies to.”

Schwartz said the nebulous wording of the amended order could attract litigation if the administration fires someone for violating it. Schwartz represented a former computer technician who said state House Republicans wrongly fired him in 2018 after he took to social media to defend a lawmaker who had been accused of physically or sexually abusing two women.

The caucus settled the case in 2021, records show, paying the ex-employee $42,000.

Ahmet Selim Tekelioglu, executive director of the Philadelphia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the language of Shapiro’s amendment on its face did not concern him. He was more wary of the email from Weaver that cites social media posts, boycotts, and public confrontations as potential venues for "hate speech."

He found the latter "deeply troubling" because it could be used to target a wide range of actions and opinions.

"Gov. Shapiro is saying in one breath, you are free to love who you want, pray to who you want, or don't pray … and in the other breath, he is trying to define what is antisemitic and what is not, what is acceptable and what is not,” Tekelioglu said. “That is what we sometimes call government officials using their privilege or positions to spell out their own biases."

Shapiro has often been asked for, and offered, his thoughts on Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza. He hosted an official event in the state Capitol less than two weeks after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack to “Stand in Solidarity with Israel” and welcomed four survivors to the governor’s mansion for a menorah lighting.

The governor has also criticized domestic protests against the war, including one in December outside a Philadelphia falafel shop owned by an Israeli restaurateur who dedicated a day's revenues to a nonprofit that has worked with the Israeli military.

“A restaurant was targeted and mobbed because its owner is Jewish and Israeli,” Shapiro posted on X at the time. “This hate and bigotry is reminiscent of a dark time in history.”

In recent weeks, as college students across the U.S. have protested the war, the governor told Politico that it was “absolutely unacceptable” that “universities can’t guarantee the safety and security of their students” and called for local governments to step in.

And just last week, Shapiro called for the University of Pennsylvania to disband a pro-Palestinian encampment while knowing such an effort with police assistance was being planned, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Shapiro has repeatedly said his comments are his attempt to “speak and act with moral clarity” about the war and accompanying unrest.

As the New York Times recently reported, Shapiro has criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and expressed support for a two-state solution. He has not called for a ceasefire, which led some Muslim leaders to boycott a Ramadan celebration the governor held.

“I am pro-the idea of a Jewish homeland, a Jewish state, and I will certainly do everything in my power to ensure that Israel is strong and Israel is fortified and will exist for generations,” Shapiro told the New York Times this month.

Walczak, of the ACLU, said that recent actions by elected officials — from equating criticisms of Israel with antisemitism to proposing third-party speech monitors on college campuses — are eroding a fundamental civil liberty.

“Free speech is a value. Free speech doesn't give you the right to harass people. There are lines there,” Walczak said. “But much of the rhetoric by politicians pushing for action to combat antisemitism or Islamophobia crosses clear First Amendment lines.”

BEFORE YOU GO… If you learned something from this article, pay it forward and contribute to Spotlight PA at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Get the top news from across Pennsylvania, plus some fun and a puzzle, all in one free daily email newsletter.