A young woman in Utah lost her job at an aquarium attraction after being told another employee felt threatened by artistic images she'd shared on Facebook of KKK members being lynched.
Madison Hartmann, 24, had been an employee at SeaQuest's Utah location for four years but was recently let go over her social media posts. Hartmann, a zoology and anthropology double major at Weber State University, had been working with the attraction's animals including large reptiles, lizards, crocodilians, exotic birds, and mammals.
"I just really like teaching people about the animals that we share with the world," she told BuzzFeed News.
On June 25, Hartmann was pulled into a meeting to discuss a post on her Facebook page. She provided a recording of that meeting to BuzzFeed News.
The post in question was a photo of an art installation by the Indecline collective that showed figures in KKK robes hanging from a tree. Titled "Ku Klux Klowns," the piece was a response to the 2017 killing of anti-racist protester Heather Heyer at the 2017 “Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The piece is a grim nod to the numerous lynchings of Black Americans carried out by KKK members and sympathizers. These lynchings involved mobs of white people terrorizing, beating, and ultimately killing Black people, often by hanging, and incidents were still being recorded into the 1980s. Some activists view the killings of unarmed Black Americans by police to be a kind of continuation of those murders.
"They mostly said that since [the post] was public and because I had SeaQuest listed on my profile that I had to take it down," she said. "But they also mentioned that a fellow employee found it as harassing and that I was violating the harassment policy."
In the recording of the meeting, the manager tells Hartmann the "post was taken a different way" and he understands how someone could find it offensive.
"As a manager, I could literally be held liable if somebody feels uncomfortable or is offended by something and I don't take action," the manager tells her, before asking her to delete the image. He also said it could be seen as condoning violence or illegal activity.
"I said something along the lines of, 'I didn’t think you guys could police what I posted on my private page,'" she said.
However, Hartmann ultimately complied and removed the image.
Then, not long after, she got in trouble once again.
This time, it was for a photo of New Orleans boxer Jonathan Montrel. In it, he's raising his middle finger and his hand has a tattoo of a Klansman being hanged. The post includes the tags "BlackLivesMatter" and "BLM."
This time, the post was set to "friends only" and Hartmann went the extra step of excluding some coworkers she had as friends on Facebook.
The next day, she was getting ready for an interaction session with the otters when she was told to immediately report to management. That's where she got a call from the company's human resources manager.
Hartmann said she was told she "had violated the policy again and the same person felt harassed and threatened by it because it was an image depicting violence."
She was then told she'd been fired.
"I understand the public post, but when they said the reason I was fired was harassing other employees, I was like, Someone just told you they’re in support of KKK people and I'm the one getting in trouble? It doesn’t make any sense," she said.
Lisa Edwards, SeaQuest's HR manager, told BuzzFeed News in an emailed statement that Hartmann's posts were "not in line" with the company's values.
"SeaQuest believes in promoting a safe environment for our team members, guests and suppliers to enjoy. Any violation of our policies will result in disciplinary action including possible termination," she said.
"As a company we do not feel the posts of a team member were in line with our company’s ethics, values or company culture."
In SeaQuest's employee policies, which Hartmann provided to BuzzFeed News, employees are warned to post "appropriate and respectful content" that does not violate the company's ethics or harassment policies. The harassment policy forbids discrimination based on state-protected classes.
"Hate groups are not protected under those things, they’re not classified as a protected group," said Hartmann. "Both images that I shared were not depictions of actual humans. Anybody should be able to share art that they find interesting and thought-provoking."
At this point, Hartmann doesn't want her job back — she just wants to be able to collect unemployment. Still, she's been left confused and upset by her experience.
"Is hate towards a hate group discrimination?" she asked. "I can’t be the only person that something like this has happened to this week."