The Trick In Dealing With Government: Find The Grown-Up In The Room

Speech has consequences. Some of these consequences are legitimate; they are reflections of other people's speech. You might disagree with them, but if you have any self-respect, you won't whine that they constitute censorship.

But some consequences — often, but not always, inflicted by the government — are illegitimate. Warren, a business owner who writes at Coyote Blog, encountered such a consequence. When he expressed himself on his blog and linked to a negative Yelp review of a government agency, a functionary from that agency threatened him with loss of government contracts:

Well, one day I got a letter via email from a regional manager of the state parks agency whose park was the subject of that Yelp review I linked. I was notified that I had 48 hours to remove that blog post or I would lose all my contracts with that state. In particular, they did not like a) the fact that I linked to a negative Yelp review of one of their parks and b) that I impugned the incredibly noble idea that state parks are all operated by law enforcement officials.

There are a lot of things Warren could have done. I'm sure there are a lot of things he was tempted to do, as I would have been. Instead of doing the most viscerally satisfying thing, the most "just" thing, or the most "righteous" thing, Warren did the most effective thing for his business and for the immediate preservation of his freedom of speech: he engaged with the grown-up in the room.

Fortunately, I was able to write the acting General Counsel of the agency that afternoon. Rather than sending something fiery as the first salve, I sent a coy letter observing innocently that her agency seemed to believe that my contracts with the state imposed a prior restraint on my speech and I asked her to clarify the boundaries of that prior restraint so I would know what speech I was to be allowed. To her credit, she called me back about 6 minutes after having received the letter and told me that it was void and asking me to please, please pretend I had never received it. So I did, and I reward her personally for her quick and intelligent response by not naming her agency in the story.

When you deal with government agencies, you often deal with people who are entitled, or stupid, or indifferent. But there are also people who are capable, dedicated, and principled. There are grown-ups in the room. You can rail against the government — as I do here — but, if you want quick and painless results, you can also look for and politely engage the grown-up. Maybe the grown-up is genuinely concerned with your rights. Maybe the grown-up is genuinely concerned with the government agency staying out of the headlines, or out of unnecessary trouble. Maybe both. You could vent your spleen to them — you could point out that they are surrounded by thugs and jackasses. That would be satisfying. That would be true. That would be just. But it wouldn't be effective.

Sometimes you just want a swift, effective outcome. When in doubt, find the grown-up in the room, and be civil and understated to him or her.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. E says

    Sage advice. I wouldn't limit it to the public sector, though — this is equally applicable to private entities.

  2. Josh C says

    Uh, hallelujah? You're absolutely right, but you have to be a grown up yourself to take that advice.

    My personal phrasing is "you can be right, or you can get what you want."

  3. says

    I deal with a social security claim for repayment of overpaid benefits. My client argued for a waiver, given his inability to repay. The first request for waiver was denied. On the re-hearing, I attended, with a binder of regulations. I asked the hearing officer that she supply references to the Social Security regs so that when I appealed the denial, I knew why and how to appeal.

    They granted the waiver.

  4. En Passant says

    SPQR wrote Mar 16, 2013 @2:27 pm:

    Fine advice, Ken. When the room has a grownup.

    Dang! You beat me to it.

  5. Rob says

    Fine advice, Ken. When the room has a grownup.

    Yeah; sometimes it's children all the way down.

  6. Mike says

    "Fine advice, Ken. When the room has a grownup."

    "Yeah; sometimes it's children all the way down."

    Still worth it to be the grown-up.

  7. Pete says

    "Fine advice, Ken. When the room has a grownup."

    There is often a grownup around, but the problem is knowing who they are and where to find them. As such, I think it's important to not only name and shame the bad actors, but to name and praise the good guys. I wish Coyote Blog had done so.

  8. Mercury says

    Well, sometimes there's a grownup in the room.

    More essentially, Warren identified a sufficient someone higher up the food chain and invited him/put him in a position to generate damning evidence of his agency's malfeasance in writing.

    This time that someone happened to be a grown-up.

  9. Noah Callaway says

    @Pete in this instance naming and praising the individual would also name and shame the agency. The individual would probably prefer to keep her agency out of the spotlight, rather than accept personal praise…

  10. Pete says

    @Noah – I hear you, and I respect the author's decision to withhold names. As a participant in the events, his judgement is clearly more informed than mine.

    That said, I don't think this story should necessarily shame the agency. It's inevitable that people within agencies will make mistakes, even terrible moronic mistakes. But in forming a judgement about those agencies, what is more important is how they react to their mistakes. When an agent owns up to an error and acts quickly to make things right, that should reflect well on an agency, and is worthy of praise.

  11. delurking says

    "When you deal with government agencies, you often deal with people who are entitled, or stupid, or indifferent."

    I find it interesting that entitled has become its own antonym. At least I think "entitled" in this context means someone who is not entitled to whatever it is they want.

  12. Anony Mouse says

    @Pete – I think there's a very good chance that the unnamed person involved in sending the letter was, privately, ripped a new one. Possibly all the people between the adult and the child as well. People with a title like "General Counsel" probably don't like getting letters like that.

    At least, I like to think that people in government get chewed out when this sort of nonsense happens. I like to have faith that the Peter Principle doesn't apply to everyone in the government.

  13. says

    @delurking I suspect Ken really meant "think they are" or "feel they are" when referring to their perception of entitlement.

    though he *whispers* was a prosecutor once *slowly steps back then sprints for the exit*

  14. says

    Chris R. • Mar 16, 2013 @11:54 am

    This also works with AT&T.

    But not T-Moblie. They don't have the technology infrastructure to back up their claims. As a consumer I'll just choose another wireless provider..but if I heard someone had impaled T-Mobile's advertising executives I'd ask "where" because I
    'm looking for some graves to piss on.

  15. says

    Not just the government. This is often an effective way of dealing with corporate bullies. There is a significant choice to be made between replying with a public blast, and invoking the Streisand effect, and finding the right buttons to push within the threatening entity. Sometimes one is better, and sometimes the other.

  16. z! says

    Similar to the line I got from a friend, years back, "If you're not authorized to say 'yes', then I guess you're not authorized to make the decision either way. Let's find the person that is." (reword as necessary for the situation.)

    Unfortunately, this is often followed by a very polite "May I speak with your supervisor, please." Why? "Because I asked."

  17. AlphaCentauri says

    Verizon has a strange situation where the folks in the field are very good and the folks in the office are clueless (as in, I got to the third level of supervisors trying to find out what the dialup number was for internet — which is displayed on their website, but I had no high speed service at the time — and no one even believed me that it was possible to get on the internet by dialing a phone number).

    When we got our service installed recently, the installer gave us his personal cell phone number so we could call with problems without dealing with Verizon's tech support line.

  18. David says

    This is a beautiful story. One should remember that in order to find the grownup in the room, one must first BE a grownup in the room (maybe the axiom should be, "Find the OTHER grownup in the room"). Warren deserves a great deal of credit for being that grownup.

  19. says


    I finally feel like a member of the in-crowd, because Warren told me this story face-to-face a week before he blogged it and 10 days before it popped up here at Popehat.

    OK…so now where are all the hot cheerleaders?

    Or have the benefits of being in the in-crowd changed since I was 16?