Public defender’s leadership called photo of staffer posing with rifle and Israeli flag ‘akin to displaying a Nazi swastika,” federal lawsuit claims

Cook County Asst. Public Defender Debra Gassman poses with a firearm during her service with the Israeli Defense Forces in 2002. (U.S. District Court records)

CHICAGO — Top leaders in the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender reprimanded a veteran attorney for displaying a picture from her service in the Israeli Defense Forces, saying it was “akin to displaying a Nazi swastika” and could provoke workplace violence.

Those are some of the allegations in a federal lawsuit filed against the office and Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell on Wednesday.

Debra Gassman’s lawsuit claims she has “proudly displayed” the picture, which shows her posing with a rifle in front of an Israeli flag, in her work office for “over 20 years.” But, she says, that all changed when she moved the photo to a common area after Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel. Co-workers routinely display art, pictures, cards, and other items in the same space, the suit claimed.

In the complaint, which accuses office leadership of violating her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, Gassman said she was “devastated” by the strike, which killed more than 1,100 Israelis. She became upset that “few seemed to care—or even were aware of” the attack when she returned to work.

So, she decided to “raise awareness” by moving the photo from her office to an employee mailbox area “where other employees were allowed to put photos and decorations.”

“Executive management reprimanded her for putting it there,” the suit states, and she removed it “promptly” and returned it to her private office.

But, Gassman claims, a high-ranking deputy in the office, Parle Roe-Taylor, “confiscated” the picture during an “unannounced and unprecedented search of her private office.” Roe-Taylor prohibited her from displaying the image in her office, even though it had been there for over 20 years, the suit claims.

Roe-Taylor and another executive instructed an office chief to remove the photo.

“They told her Skokie supervisors that the Photo was comparable to a Nazi swastika,” the suit claims.

Describing the photo as one of Gassman’s “most prized possessions,” the suit says it was taken when she volunteered with the Israeli Defense Forces in 2002. She has displayed it “prominently—and proudly” in her offices ever since.

In her 27 years with the office, Gassman “has never received any type of discipline,” and her “evaluations have been excellent,” said the suit. But a week after management removed the image from her office, Sharone Mitchell personally penned a written reprimand.

Mitchell cited Cook County’s workplace violence policy, saying the office is “committed to creating a work environment free from violence or threats of violence,” and noting the photo showed Gassman “holding what appears to be a firearm.”

Yet management allows other employees to have actual weapons in their offices, including guns and swords, the suit states. Other employees have also posted images of firearms that their clients were found not guilty of possessing, Gassman claimed.

A copy of the letter Gassman claims Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell sent in response to her posting of the photo. (U.S. District Court records)

“We understand that tragic world events likely motivated this display and may have compromised your judgment,” Mitchell wrote. “We have considered this in our decision not to pursue any disciplinary action at this time.”

Gassman wants a judge to declare management’s actions unconstitutional and issue an order allowing her to “prominently display” the photo in her office. She is also seeking compensation for attorney’s fees and costs and “other relief the Court may deem just and proper.”

The case is scheduled for a status hearing before Senior U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow on April 17.

The Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender did not respond to an emailed inquiry about the lawsuit. Gassman declined to comment.

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About Tim Hecke 252 Articles
Tim Hecke is CWBChicago's managing partner. He started his career at KMOX, the legendary news radio station in St. Louis. From there, he moved on to work at stations in Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York City. Tim went on to build syndicated radio news and content services that served every one of America's 100 largest radio markets. He became CWBChicago's managing partner in 2019. His email address is tim@cwbchicago.com