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Free Speech at Work

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Last month, the always valuable labor law expert Charlotte Garden had an great primer of the suppression of free speech on the job for EPI. This is something we should all read. Here’s the executive summary:

“At-will” employment is sometimes shorthanded as employers’ rights to fire employees (and employees’ right to quit) for a bad or arbitrary reason, or for no reason at all.  Among the bad or arbitrary reasons that employers sometimes fire workers: something the worker said, or something they didn’t say. Employees have been fired, often without legal recourse, for criticizing their companies on social media, for running for office, or even for having a bumper sticker supporting a political candidate whose election the boss opposes. The freedom of speech that so many Americans valorize is in practical effect illusory for many American workers.

This report traces the legal rules governing freedom of speech at work. Following a summary that emphasizes the scope of the problem and gives examples, it begins by discussing the background rules of at-will employment, which establish that employers may generally terminate workers for what they say. This rule has its limits—for example, employers may not fire workers in contravention of a state’s explicit public policy—but judges tend to apply these exceptions in a patchy and inconsistent fashion. Further, because the First Amendment does not constrain private actors, private-sector workers cannot fall back on the constitution at all; even public-sector employers are often free to fire or discipline workers for their speech.

Beyond common law rules, the report also discusses federal, state, and local statutes that protect certain types of employee speech. These laws tend to apply only to specific subjects and manners of expression. For example, the National Labor Relations Act protects employees’ conversations about their working conditions—but only as long as those conversations occur at the right time, in the right place, and in the right manner. For example, among other limits, the NLRA protects only those conversations or meetings that occur during “nonwork time,” and the Trump NLRB has recently held that the NLRA does not protect employees’ use of their work-issued email addresses. Likewise, some states and localities forbid employers from retaliating against employees for their political views. But each of those laws has serious limitations in coverage, enforcement, or both. Worse, employers sometimes challenge even limited protections for workers’ expression on the grounds that those protections violate the employer’s own rights under the First Amendment.

Finally, some workers have meaningful contractual protections that curb the effects of the at-will doctrine, including as it applies to their speech and expression. But workers cannot achieve these protections without either individual or collective power, both of which have eroded for many workers over the last 80 years. The result is that one real source of protection for workers who speak out—collective bargaining agreements in which employers agree to discipline or fire workers only for good cause—are increasingly out of reach, especially for private-sector workers.

This report aims to help readers understand the legal landscape that effectuates the “freedom of speech” at work. It shows how employers have come to monopolize that freedom for themselves, and why workers experience speech control instead of speech freedom.

I love pushing the boundaries of speech against my employer’s wishes. The biggest reason I can do that is that we do have a collective bargaining agreement and strong union representation. I am very lucky.

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