Burlington Free Press Editor Fired After Twitter Firestorm Over Transgender Rights

Jan 7, 2018

The executive editor of the Burlington Free Press who set off a firestorm on Twitter last weekend "left the company Monday evening," the newspaper said on its website.

Update 1/9/2018 1:17 p.m.

In an article published on the paper's website late Monday, Randy Lovely – the USA Today Network vice president for community news – said that Denis Finley did not follow the company's ethics policy and its code of conduct when making comments on Twitter about Vermont's move to add a third gender option to its driver's license application.

"We encourage our journalists to engage in a meaningful dialogue on social media, but it’s important that the conversation adhere to our overarching values of fairness, balance and objectivity," Lovely said in the announcement of Finley's firing.  

The newspaper also announced that Burlington Planning Editor Emilie Stigliani will take on the role of interim editor while a replacement for the position is sought.

Update 1/8/2018 8:48 p.m.

This post lede and its headline had been updated following the announcement of Finley's firing.

Original story (published 1/7/2018):

Denis Finley, who joined the Free Press just in September 2016, had tweeted that a move to add a third gender option to Vermont driver's licenses "makes us one step closer to the apocalypse."

Finley went on to ask if it would also be worth celebrating if pedophiles were recognized on licenses.

Finley made the comments on his personal Twitter account, where he likes to retweet comments from right wing political writer Ann Coulter.

Hillary and Bill Clinton are a steady subject of his own tweets; and in one comment Finley compares Mayor Bill De Blasio's New York to imperial Russia.

But he admits that he might have crossed a line this weekend.

"If I had to do it over again I would simply ask the question. I would not try to be provocative or funny, because that didn't work," Finley said in a telephone interview. "But it's too late now and it's created a firestorm, which I'll have to deal with. But that's life in our society now; it's life in the social media age. You really have to be careful, and I wasn't careful enough"

"If I had to do it over again I would simply ask the question. I would not try to be provocative or funny, because that didn't work. But it's too late now and it's created a firestorm, which I'll have to deal with." — Denis Finley, Burlington Free Press executive editor

VPR published a story on Friday about the Law Enforcement Advisory Board's decision not to block a move by the Department of Motor Vehicles to add the third gender option to driver's licenses.

More from VPR: Vermont Is One Step Closer To Offering A Third Gender On Driver's Licenses

If the DMV adopts the new policy for people who don't identify as male or female Vermont would become only the fourth jurisdiction in the United States to have the option.

Late Friday Shay Totten, a founding advisor to the group Rights and Democracy, said the move would be "awesome."

Finley shot back, questioning why it was awesome and saying it moved us closer to the apocalypse, which he later said was in reference to the Sports Illustrated "Signs of the Apocalypse" column.

Finley went on to say that the world was "falling apart, piece by piece."

"I meant no disrespect," Finley said. "But I think it's a legitimate question to ask: 'Well why does it have to be on a driver's license? Why is that important?'"

Outright Vermont executive director Dana Kaplan says adding the third gender option is an important step.

"Trans folks don't see themselves reflected in culture and systems," Kaplan says. "And so when we look at something like getting to add a third gender marker to a driver's license, that is such a clear win. That's such a place for folks to be able to say, 'Yes. Thank you for validating my identity. For recognizing who I am. And for getting me a way to show up in the world.' That is what we need so much more of if we want to see queer and trans youth leading thriving lives."

Kaplan says the Twitter storm highlights the disconnect between an understanding of the challenges some queer and trans people face every day, and the acceptance and rights that most people take for granted.

And when the editor of one of the state's largest media companies publicly downplays an important win for the trans community, Kaplan says he should be called out.

"For somebody who is in such a position of power to make such an utterly transparently transphobic remark about a number of our folks is just setting a really toxic precedent." — Dana Kaplan, Outright Vermont executive director

"For somebody who is in such a position of power to make such an utterly transparently transphobic remark about a number of our folks is just setting a really toxic precedent," says Kaplan.  

Finley has an official Burlington Free Press Twitter account, but he says he understands that in the 24-hour, social media-fueled landscape the lines get blurred.

"Technically I'm the editor of the Burlington Free Press 24 hours a day,  seven days a week, 365 days a year, whether it's my work account or my personal account," says Finley. "I have to follow the rules. And I bend them. I've bent them in the past. I bend them a little bit now. I think I go up to the line. But I want to talk about things. I want to ask questions."

Finley says he won't remove the posts, and invites anyone to come into the Free Press office to talk about the issue.

Attempts to reach Finley's boss, the president of the Burlington Free Press, were unsuccessful.