TURLOCK -- A Turlock woman's racially tinged rant against President Barack Obama and her employer's decision to fire her remained a hot topic across the Internet and social media Friday.
After the president's re-election Tuesday night, Denise Helms used the n-word to describe him on her Facebook page, then said, "Maybe he will get assassinated this term..!!"
One of her Facebook friends used Twitter to share Helms' post, which caught the attention of a Sacramento TV station and then The Bee.
By Wednesday night, Helms was tearfully telling her employer at Cold Stone Creamery in Turlock she was receiving threats.
By Thursday at noon, he fired her.
By Friday, the story had gone viral.
It became the second most-read story at Modbee.com for the entire year, trailing only the report detailing the relationship between ex-Enochs High School teacher James Hooker and his former student.
Media outlets from The Associated Press to the Huffington Post picked up the story. It was tweeted and retweeted, texted, linked and shared by thousands of others, offering plenty of people who had never heard of the 22-year-old Helms a chance to judge her words.
"You shouldn't let privacy settings on any social network give you a false sense of security," said Rebecca Jeschke, digital media analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. "What computers do is make copies. If you see something on a screen, you can copy and send it to someone else.
"You can't unring the bell. Once it's online, it's done."
The Turlock store's own Facebook page included four comments Friday afternoon two from people who supported Helms and vowed to take their business to another ice cream shop and two who backed the decision to fire her.
Store owner Duane Costa offered his apology to the people of Turlock as well as Obama, and said he didn't have a choice in firing Helms.
"I had to take everything into consideration her welfare at work and that of the other workers," he said. "I can't have a hostile work environment. I had other employees who were afraid to come to work."
Costa and store manager Chris Kegle said Helms, who worked 25 or 30 hours a week, never had given any hint of her feelings before this week. Kegle said many of the employees were Facebook friends.
"She said some disgusting things," Costa said. "The use of the n-word is offensive. I think this is an unfortunate situation and we'd just like it to go away."
In response to multiple critics on Twitter, Cold Stone Creamery corporate officials in Scottsdale, Ariz., sent this tweet: "Please know this employee is no longer with the company & her disgraceful remarks do not reflect our views."
The decision to fire Helms for something she did while on her own time generated plenty of debate on forums, message boards and in the comments on the story at www.modbee.com. Many wondered about her First Amendment right to free speech and whether her employer could punish her for a Facebook post.
"She can say whatever she wants, within limits, but when people take extreme positions, there are bound to be repercussions," said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition in San Rafael. "If she were working for a government agency, her dismissal because of those comments would certainly raise some First Amendment concerns. But a private company probably has considerably more leeway.
"A private company has First Amendment rights of its own. If it has an employee who's taking a position that's deeply offensive to other employees and customers, it has a right to discipline her."
That said, Scheer believes the company overreacted and an unpaid suspension would have been a better choice.
"The right to free speech is not dependent on your political views. So those who find it easy to applaud the employer's decision to fire her should think twice, because there could be circumstances where they could not be happy with someone being fired," he said.
Frank Johnson, president of the Modesto/Stanislaus chapter of the NAACP, said Helms "has the right to say whatever she wants, but she has to deal with the consequences." His bigger concern was the reference to assassination.
"That was mind-boggling that the hatred is so severe that it warrants the loss of life," Johnson said. "His (Obama's) election was proper due process. You don't have to like it. That's our right to vote when we win, we win; when we lose, we lose."
He and two other NAACP members went to the Turlock store Friday to do a TV interview.
"Businesses shouldn't be held accountable for actions of an individual," Johnson said. "We were there to support the owner for his speedy reaction to this negativity. We can't afford to have more businesses go away."
Jeschke, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the incident is a vivid reminder not only of the power and reach of digital media, but also of personal responsibility and self-awareness.
"Generally, social networks and the Internet and applications on the phone have contributed to a flowering of free speech and freedom of expression. And that's a good thing," she said. "That doesn't mean you need to turn off common sense."
Bee Senior Editor Dave Lyghtle can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2315.