Regulating Speech at Work

by Pepper Hamilton LLP
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Q: Can a private employer limit its employees’ speech and political activity in the workplace?

A: Yes, but not speech that is considered part of a “concerted activity.”

Last year, former San Francisco 49ers player Colin Kaepernick, kneeled during the national anthem to bring attention to racial injustice. On Saturday September 23, 2017, in a series of tweets, President Trump demonstrated his displeasure with NFL players who do not stand during the national anthem and called for their termination.  In response to President Trump’s comments, NFL players across the country have been “taking a knee,” locking arms or staying in the locker room during the national anthem.  These demonstrations have generated a lot of discussion about whether a private employer can limit an employee’s speech and political activity in the workplace.

Although the right to freedom of speech is fundamental, it is not absolute. The First Amendment prohibits the government from interfering with an individual’s freedom of speech and religion; however it does not protect private-sector employees.  There is a common misconception that freedom of speech applies to anything and everything an individual has to say, but the First Amendment protections only apply in cases of government interference.

Private-sector employees are typically employed at-will, meaning that their employers can fire them at any time for any reason, with or without cause. There are many exceptions to the employment at-will doctrine, but the First Amendment is not one of them.  As a result, as a general matter, a private sector employer may discipline or even terminate an at-will employee for statements made both inside and outside of the workplace, including statements made on social media posts, blog posts, political opinions, t-shirts, and bumper stickers.  But the employer’s right has limits.  Under federal labor laws, an employer cannot discipline or fire an employee for speech that involves “concerted activities,” such as discussing the terms and conditions of employment, wearing a union shirt, discussing wages, and/or forming a union.

Even though the First Amendment does not apply to private workplaces, employers should be careful when regulating speech. Although an employer may have a right to regulate employee speech on political or social issues, doing so may have a detrimental effect on the workplace.  And, there are times when employers have a duty to regulate employee speech.  For example, employers have a responsibility to maintain a work environment that does not violate laws prohibiting discrimination and harassment, or create a hostile environment.  Employers often have to investigate and act in response to speech in the workplace, and even outside the workplace, that creates or contributes to a hostile work environment from the standpoint of race, sex and other protected characteristics.

Employers should consult a labor and employment attorney if they have any questions about what speech is appropriate to regulate, and for assistance in establishing policies and procedures that govern speech in the workplace.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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