Workers Have Fewer Speech Protections Than They May Think
By Samuel Cordes
Freedom of speech, particular when it relates to political matters, is one of our most cherished rights in the U.S. Indeed, although many people may not know much about our Constitution, most everyone knows about the First Amendment. And while freedom of speech is recognized as one of our most important liberties, many people may be surprised to discover that they may not have as many protections in the workplace as they may think.
According to a recent survey by the site CareerBuilder.com, approximately 36 percent of workers surveyed said that they discuss politics at work. These discussions are most prevalent, of course, during years when elections are likely to deal with particularly contentious issues. Of those surveyed, about 23 percent said that political conversations at work had lead to verbal altercations with coworkers. Surprisingly, despite how common political discussions are at work, a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that only about 25 percent of employers have written policies regarding this sort of speech in the workplace.
Generally speaking, private employers have a great deal of discretion in setting policies that limit employees’ ability to engage in disruptive political speech while at work. The protections provided by the First Amendment extend only to government actions, not those by private companies and individuals. In most cases, companies have free reign to discipline and even fire employees for engaging in political speech that is disruptive or hurts a legitimate business objective.
Or course, it is not always that simple. Although employers can set policies regarding political speech in the workplace, the implementation and enforcement of these policies can, under some circumstances, constitute discrimination or harassment. This is particularly true when enforcement has a disparate impact upon a particular group of people or when the rules are applied across the business unevenly.
Note, too, that these are the general rules for employees of private companies. Depending on the circumstances, some special rules apply to those employed by the state or federal governments.
As with other legal matters, the details are important. If you believe you have been the victim of discrimination or harassment in the workplace, consider speaking to an experienced employment law attorney. An attorney can learn more about your case, provide information about your rights and help you decide on what to do next. For more information about how an employment law attorney can help you, contact an attorney today.