The limits on freedom of speech at work 01-10-02

On September 15, 2001, three black firefighters were suspended from duty at a Miami firehouse. One of them removed a large flag from a fire truck he was driving because it was blocking his view, but all three were suspended because they made remarks expressing reservations about what the flag represented to them as blacks.

A month later, the Department determined the firefighters had not acted inappropriately, and they were returned to work with no loss in pay.

Most employees believe they have absolute freedom of speech at work. They don't. The First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution says, "Government shall make no law abridging freedom of speech ...". As a result, government employees like firefighters have the most freedom of speech in the workplace. For example, when Ronald Reagan was shot, an employee of a Texas sheriff's department said, "If they go for him again, I hope they get him." She was fired, but the U.S. Supreme Court held that was unconstitutional because she was speaking on a matter of public concern.

The First Amendment does not apply to employees in the private sector. Employees do not even have the right to discuss non-work related issues at all. Most employers allow it, but it's important to realize that it is a privilege that the employer can revoke at any time. After all, the purpose of the workers is to work.

If management allows discussion in the workplace, in most states employees are protected against discrimination, harassment or termination as a result of the content of their political views. They are protected by general privacy laws, specific political speech statutes, or the laws prohibiting discrimination against employees who engage in lawful activities.

If managers allow political discussion in the workplace, they should ensure that employees are respectful and tolerant of each other. If these discussions disrupt the office, undermine a manager's authority, or impair working relationships, they should be stopped.

What You Should Do: Do not take any adverse employment action against employees because of their political opinions. If private sector employees have been told to get back to work, and instead continue the discussion, they can be reprimanded, disciplined or ultimately terminated for insubordination. Government employers should contact legal counsel.

Information here is correct at the time it is posted. Case decisions cited here may be reversed. Please do not rely on this information without consulting an attorney first.

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