By Fran Slusarz
It always surprises people when they learn that they really don’t have a right to say whatever they want at work or outside work. We all have rights to free speech under the First Amendment, but what that means is often misunderstood. Everyone’s heard, “You can’t yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater,” but what does that mean for everyone who doesn’t work in crowded theaters?
Answer: not a heck of a lot.
What the First Amendment Is and Is Not
First, take a look at what the First Amendment actually says: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech….” The First Amendment is only concerned with what the government does. Government employers have protection for speech made in their capacity as private individuals, but not in their roles as government employee. If a government employee’s freedom of speech is abridged, the employee can bring a civil rights claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. But your private employer? The First Amendment has nothing to do with it. Private individuals and private companies can do what they want. Even terminate your employment.
This may seem counterintuitive – how can you be fired for doing something that is 100% legal and enshrined in the Constitution? Simple: just because the government cannot stop you from doing something does not mean your employer has to like it. For example, you can be a member of the KKK and the government cannot stop you and your brother klansmen from putting on pointy hoods, and sharing secret handshakes and racist screeds (one assumes). When your employer finds out, however, she can fire you because she finds your beliefs repugnant. Many who stomped around Charlottesvillle, Virginia, shouting Nazi slogans learned this the hard way.
But this same rule works against people who are bringing attention to concerns more in line with American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For example, in 2017, Lisa Durden, a college professor, was fired for appearing on Fox News and defending a Black Lives Matter party to which only Black people were invited. There’s no question that her statements were protected by the First Amendment, but some of her statements were viewed as inflammatory, outrage was duly sparked, and her employer wanted to distance itself from her.
Don’t Embarrass Your Employer
Like it or not, we are all ambassadors for our employers and how we act/what we do reflects on them. We live in a world where the Internet can find you in hours, as certain self-involved dog owner and bullying cyclist recently learned. Both lost their jobs because their actions reflected upon their employers, and their employers wanted nothing to do with them.
These are outrageous examples that illustrate an important lesson. If keeping your job is important to you, you must consider how publicly exercising your right to free speech reflects on your employer. A vocal gun control advocate can’t expect to keep his marketing job at Smith & Wesson.
If You’re Not the Designated Spokesperson, Don’t Speak for your Company
This seems obvious, but it includes not doing or saying anything that would make anyone else think that you are speaking for the company. For example, if you work for UPS, doff the brown uniform before you join the protest rally. Don’t hold a sign that says, “Company X Employees Against World Peace.”
Before law school, I worked in human resources for a Fortune 10. One day, all hell broke loose because a vice president of training and development wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal on company letterhead, which WSJ printed. His letter included references to “gritty inner-city streets” and addressed racial issues. He was lucky. It was the late 90s and the hubbub was almost all internal. If that were today, he would have been fired the day after WSJ published his letter.
Nevermind Your Privacy Settings, Everything on the Internet is Public
This is where people make the most mistakes. You may think you are just venting to a group of friends and no one else will see it, but anything can be forwarded, or screenshot, or found in a Google search. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want your boss to read and you don’t want published on The Daily Beast. If you’re unsure, stick with cat memes.
Last year, agents of U.S. Customers and Border Patrol discovered that their “private” Facebook group, where they shared jokes about dead migrants and sexist memes, wasn’t at all private. Various punishments ensued and Congress is investigating the group. This is not a good look on anyone. That any of the more active members are still employed is only because they are government employees and are entitled to due process. Private employees are not.
Back to Fairness, Why Isn’t What You Say “Off the Clock” Protected?
By design, the Constitution concerns itself only with what the government can and cannot do. The idea was that if the government involves itself too deeply in the day-to-day conduct of people’s lives, it is akin to tyranny. So, we are left with an imperfect situation where white supremacist groups are protected the same as pro-democracy groups, and your private employer can fire you for involvement in either.
Still, that doesn’t feel right. Is it possible to work around it, and protect employment rights for private employees who are exercising their First Amendment rights?
Answer: Yes. Some federal statutes already protect some speech, and some states protect employees engaged in political activity.
OSHA, the NLRB, and Whistleblower Laws
As I discussed in my articles about preparing to return to work in CovidWorld and Whistleblower Laws, you have the right to a safe workplace and the right report unsafe working conditions without fear of reprisal. You also have the rights to discuss the terms and conditions of your employment with your co-workers and engage in concerted activity to change the terms and conditions. These protections are limited as to the subjects upon which you can speak, and to whom, but it is something.
Some states have passed laws that specifically protect employees from adverse action based on pollical activity. Connecticut comes right out and prohibits discipline or discharge of an employee for exercising First Amendment Rights, provided the activity does not interfere with the employee’s job performance or the working relationship between the employer and the employee. Colorado, North Dakota, and Utah prohibit workplace discrimination based on “lawful conduct outside of work.” California and New York prohibit discrimination for “recreation activities” outside work, which can include attending political events. A handful of other states protect employees engaged in “political activities,” based on their party membership, and based on their “political opinions.”
In the current divisive political environment, it is unlikely that the federal government will pass a law adding employment protection for political activity, but laws change to reflect the people’s beliefs. Twenty years ago, marriage equality seemed like an impossibility. By 2004, same sex marriage was legal in Massachusetts, followed by Connecticut’s civil union law in 2005. Over the next 10 years, same sex marriage became legal in state after state, until the watershed moment in 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage to be legal throughout the United States.
A sea change of societal acceptance over 15 years, from something considered virtually impossible to something legal and generally accepted by most Americans is unprecedented. But don’t be discouraged. Pressure from the general public is already causing businesses to rethink their policies about political speech at work.
Earlier this month, Starbucks suffered serious social media backlash when it was learned they instructed employees that they could not wear Black Lives Matter shirts or paraphernalia because it might amplify divisiveness. Starbucks has since announced the creation of its own Black Lives Matter t-shirts for its employees to wear. Last week, when a Taco Bell franchise employee claimed he was fired for wearing a Black Lives Matter face mask, Taco Bell was quick to respond, apologizing for the action, stating that its employees are allowed to wear Black Lives Matter masks and that it supports the Black Lives Matter movement. I doubt any of us could have imagined this reaction three years ago, when Lisa Durden was fired.
One thing is certain, support for free speech protection for private employees is gaining traction in the United States. We certainly live in interesting times.
If you would like more information about this topic please contact our employment attorneys at Carey & Associates, P.C. at 203-255-4150 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.