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Director fired after McConnell encounter
[January 22, 2008]

Director fired after McConnell encounter

(Paducah Sun, The (KY) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Jan. 22--Heather Ryan said she was fired Monday as the executive director of the Maiden Alley Cinema and blames it on fallout from an incident she had last week involving U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell.

Jason Coltharp, secretary and spokesman for Paducah Film Society Board of Directors -- which operates the cinema -- confirmed that Ryan was dismissed but would not comment on the reason. He also declined to respond to other comments from Ryan.

McConnell on Jan. 15 was in Paducah for several events, including a fundraising reception at the River Heritage Museum that shares a city-owned building on Front Street with the Maiden Alley Cinema.

After the reception, he filmed a commercial in the cinema lobby for his re-election campaign.

Ryan, a self-described Democratic political activist who opposes the Iraq war, said she waited outside the cinema with her 12-year-old daughter, Heaven Chamberlain, to ask McConnell about the war and videotape his answer. Ryan said she was not working and was in a public alley.

She said she tried to film the senator through the windows but was blocked by a security officer and others. When McConnell came out, he went right to his van and ignored questions from her and her daughter, Ryan said.

She sent an e-mail to friends describing efforts to confront McConnell at the cinema and earlier in the day at a Lions Club meeting.

In that and other e-mails, she used descriptive expletives in talking about the events and McConnell. She said one of her friends posted the e-mails on a pro-Democrat Web site.

McConnell campaign representative Justin Brasell declined comment Monday.

On Friday night, Ryan was called to an emergency meeting of the Paducah Film Society board to discuss her confrontation with McConnell and her e-mail comments. Ryan said she told the board she didn't intend for her comments to be made public. To show the board what happened, she said she showed the members her videotape and after the meeting believed her job was safe.

However, Ryan said she was shocked when on Monday she met with the board again and was told she was fired. "I was just expressing my right to free speech," she said.

Ryan said that before she was hired she believed the board was aware of her political activity, which included serving in 2006 as chairman of Eric Streit's congressional campaign against Republican U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield.

"I was never told -- and there was nothing in my contract-- saying that I couldn't continue being politically active," she said. However, that changed after the incident with McConnell when she received an e-mail from Jay Siska, chairman of the board. Coltharp confirmed the contents of the e-mail.

"We do not want you to engage in such activities or any other public political action while you are employed by the Paducah Film Society," it said. "As a nonprofit we have to be apolitical, neutral in all political events."

It also said that "what you do in public reflects upon the Paducah Film Society and can create a public perception of PFS endorsement or involvement in your activities."

"Are you willing to refrain from engaging in any public political activity during your tenure ... ?" it asked.

Ryan said board members didn't bring up the ban on political activities at the meetings on Friday and Monday. "I would not have agreed to refrain from my constitutional rights of free speech," she said.

Paducah Mayor Bill Paxton said he was at the cinema when the confrontation took place but didn't witness it. He said others told him about it, and he expressed concern to Siska.

"I worry that it gives Paducah a bad image because of the publicity it generated (on political Web sites)," Paxton said. "But I don't worry that it will affect Senator McConnell's relationship and support for the community. He's too big of a man for that."

Paxton said if Ryan's protest had occurred at another location, he wouldn't have been as concerned. "She can't do whatever she wants to (at the cinema) just because she works there," the mayor said. "It leaves the appearance that she was using her position to get to the senator and that's not right."

Bill Bartleman can be contacted at 575-8651.

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