Oregon trooper posts video from patrol car defying state vaccine mandate; placed on leave

'I will likely get fired over this video, but I am nonetheless exercising my First Amendment rights to speak freely," said Trooper Zachary Kowing


By Noelle Crombie
oregonlive.com

An Oregon trooper was placed on paid leave Wednesday for posting a video saying he will defy Gov. Kate Brown’s vaccine mandate and questioning not only the governor’s leadership but also those who follow her order.

Zachary Kowing, 29, has worked for the Oregon State Police for eight years and is assigned to the agency’s Bend office.

He posted the video six days ago to an Instagram account with the handle “Blue Line Patriot.”

He recorded the video over two minutes and 35 seconds in his patrol car while in uniform. He introduced himself as a Christian, husband, father and a police officer.

“I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States, to protect the freedom of the people who pay my salary,” he says, looking into the camera while the dispatch radio crackles in the background. “I do not work for my governor but for them.”

He said he will not follow Brown’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which applies to executive branch employees, including all employees working for all Oregon state agencies.

“I have personal and religious reasons as to why I will not take the vaccine, as well as the freedom to choose not to,” he says. “I’ll likely get fired over this video, but I’m nonetheless exercising my First Amendment rights to speak freely.”

He went onto say he has “fallen in line” for more than a year “with these useless, ineffective mask mandates and I will no more.”

Kowing in his video refers to Brown as “Miss Governor” and says her position “does not give free rein to force medical decisions upon us.” He also encourages people to decide “if you’re going to fall in line as sheep or if you’re going to stand up for the rights that we have for the short time we still have them.”

His attorney, Dan Thenell, confirmed that Kowing had been placed on leave.

Capt. Stephanie Bigman, a state police spokeswoman, declined to comment on Kowing’s remarks, calling them an ongoing personnel matter.

“We just got that information yesterday,” she said. “It’s an all new investigation.”

She said officials do not know how many of the 1,450 agency employees are vaccinated. She said that won’t likely become clear until Oct. 18, the deadline to comply.

Liz Merah, a spokeswoman for Brown, said the office does not typically comment on personnel matters, but she called the vaccination requirements “an important tool” to protect state workers, workplaces and the public.

In an email Thursday, Merah said Brown’s goal “is to keep our schools, businesses, and communities open. Our hospitals are full, and our doctors, nurses, and health care workers are being stretched beyond their limits.”

She noted skyrocketing hospitalization rates.

“The vast majority of Oregonians hospitalized for COVID-19 are unvaccinated,” said Merah. “People are dying right now when we have safe, effective, and free vaccines readily available. The Governor is responding to a public health crisis.”

The incident marks the second time state troopers have run afoul of Brown’s pandemic-related orders. In July 2020, a group of troopers appeared to defy the governor’s statewide mask order while in uniform at a Corvallis coffee shop.

Three of the troopers later met with the governor and, according to Brown, expressed regret for their actions and agreed that masks save lives.

In a recent message to its members, the leader of the union that represents state troopers said Brown’s vaccination mandate is the subject of “growing angst” among the rank and file.

Trooper Josh Wetzel, president of the Oregon State Police Officers Association, told members that the union has filed a demand to bargain the change in working conditions caused by the governor’s mandate.

He said Brown’s order can’t be enforced until matter has been negotiated.

Keith Cunningham-Parmeter, a professor at Willamette University College of Law and an expert in labor law, said public employers can’t typically change working conditions – things like wages, hours and discipline — without negotiating with the employee union.

“The fact that someone can be fired if they don’t comply with the vaccine mandate is arguably a condition of employment,” he said. “Anything you can be fired over is arguably a condition of employment.”

However, he said, these are extraordinary times given the nature of the pandemic.

“The question before an arbitrator will be whether the governor’s emergency powers trump the ordinary bargaining process,” he said.

NEXT: Do your social media posts pass the bullhorn test?

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