How Much Freedom of Speech Do Employees Have?

Workers who want to exercise their Constitutional right to free speech might want to think before they speak. Whether an employee leans right or left, wears red or blue, the bottom line is that employers have the final word on what can and cannot be said at work.

Attorney Jim Hendricks, an expert in employment and labor law, explains: “The First Amendment only prohibits the government from restricting free speech—not your employer,” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

It is true that public employees are covered by state and federal statutes protecting freedom of speech. However, private companies have the right to decide what is acceptable for their employees to say when it comes to political speech.

For example, if an employee’s political opinions disrupt the business or its workers, the employer has the right to fire that individual. Similarly, when another employee interprets a co-worker’s comments as harassment or a personal insult, those comments could be deemed disruptive enough to merit termination. The upshot is that the business owner’s rights supersede those granted by the Constitution.

It’s not all arbitrary, however. Employers must be consistent in implementing free-speech policies. If they allow a MAGA cap, they must also allow a BLM pin. But since blatantly divisive opinions in the workplace can lead to tension that affects productivity, nearly 75 percent of workplaces prohibit any politically-inspired attire. 

Experts suggest that before spouting off, workers should check employee manuals and read up on state laws affecting political speech in the workplace.   

Discussion

  1. What kinds of clashes may erupt when employees voice strong political opinions at work?
  2. Do the laws that govern free speech in the workplace unfairly suppress discourse? 
  3. What are the pros and cons of prohibiting politically-inspired attire? 

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Source: Steele, A. (2020, October 25). Is political speech protected in the workplace? Here’s what you need to know. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com

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