It is a common misconception that the First Amendment guarantees free speech in all circumstances, regardless of context. Though the Amendment specifically bars Congress from creating laws “abridging the freedom of speech,” this prohibition only applies to the domain of government.
Privately-owned businesses are not subject to these requirements, so workers must be on their toes when it comes to politically charged speech. Ultimately, employers at private firms can discipline or even fire employees who spout ideology that counters the owner’s beliefs. Thus, it’s important to keep certain principles in mind when dealing with political speech in the workplace
Not Many Legal Protections
“The consequences for having a different opinion can be significant. It can cost you financially, in terms of reputation in the community, and make day-to-day work life difficult,” said Paula Brantner, who works for Workplace Fairness, an employee rights advocacy group. “There’s not a lot of legal protections to just be you and be who you are and say what you want. The flipside is you can find yourself in trouble with not much to do about it.”
An article on the American Bar’s website uses a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. to summarize this sentiment: “A[n] employee may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be employed.” This basic principle has led to all kinds of extreme examples: in one case a man was fired by an English-language school because he published an article on homophones, which the employer said would lead to an unwanted association with “the gay agenda.”
Free Political Speech
Despite the extreme examples, many private employers allow the exercise of political speech to avoid any potential liabilities pertaining to race and gender-based discrimination. This can sometimes lead to a tense work environment, as some employees might talk about their controversial views, which in turn can make others uncomfortable. And since it’s common for people to keep quiet in the face of controversy, the problem can persist unmitigated. To that end, some workplaces employ certain restrictions to help maintain a respectful environment.
Restricted speech can extend to social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. For this reason, it is advisable to separate your personal sites from your professional web presence. To that end, you may want to keep your Facebook account private, while allowing business associates to see your LinkedIn profile. Failing this, you might risk termination, as some employers are very strict about what can and cannot be posted online. If you’re posting extreme views on Facebook, it’s probably best to restrict access to your page.
What happens when your boss is spouting extremist opinions in the workplace? This can make for a very uncomfortable work environment. Before speaking up, it’s important to remember that your boss can fire you for almost any reason, as long as the reason is not prohibited by law. Brantner urged caution: “There may be ways you can deflect or make clear that you prefer not to talk about this stuff, and that may be sufficient to keep it from damaging your working relationships. But ultimately speaking, if it becomes unbearable or the business owner or supervisor is determined to impose their views, there’s just not a lot you can do about it unfortunately.”
It should be noted that the National Labor Relations Act protects certain forms of speech in the workplace – specifically speech related to concerted activities pertaining to wages, hours and working conditions. These protections apply in both public and private workplaces.
What’s Happening at Google?
Over the last year, Google has had to deal with a very public form of extremist speech. In August of last year, a senior software engineer circulated an internal memo propagating sexist views about the adequacy of certain gender roles, writing “the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and […] these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.”
In response, the newly-hired diversity vice president Danielle Brown admonished the views of the employee, separating his memo from Google’s official policy. “[I]t’s not a viewpoint that I or this company endorses, promotes or encourages,” she wrote. CEO Sundar Pichai echoed this statement: “[W]e strongly support the right of Googlers to express themselves … to suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”
In the end, the software engineer was fired. He is now pursuing legal action against Google, claiming that the company discriminated against him based on his “Caucasian race” and male gender. The employee has since become a low-key celebrity amongst the alt-right.