Watching the news over the last few weeks would make avoiding the story about Clippers owner Donald Sterling being banned from the NBA an impossible to avoid hearing about. Before that, the issue of Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty being sanctioned by the A&E network was unavoidable, and both issues bring up the question of free speech.
What is Free Speech?
Free speech is a right granted by the first amendment of the US Constitution. It states “Congress shall make no law […] abridging the freedom of speech”. This means that it is your right to not have the government stop you from speaking your mind. This has been clarified since by the courts to not include things that can cause harm to others like screaming ‘Fire!’ in a crowded building.
A bigger issue, however, is that many feel that the freedom of expression is a ‘God given right’, or a right that doesn’t need to rely on the approval of mankind to be true. While that certainly is nice to think about, only those rights, rules, and laws established by government can be enforced by the government.
Free Speech in the Workplace
A key phrase I used above is “not have the government stop you”. That is the key to the bill of rights. It protects you from the government, not other people or private businesses. In fact, none of the bill of rights governs your employer’s interaction with you. Some of the rights afforded to you in the bill of rights, such as the freedom of choice in religion, are echoed elsewhere in US law. However, freedom of speech is not one of them.
To put it another way, you have the freedom to say what you like. Your employer then also has the freedom to condemn what you say, and discipline you as they see fit for it. Both are first amendment protected actions, and both are well within our rights.
To put it into a prospective most people can probably relate to, imagine you were to tell a customer at your place of employment that you think they’re stupid, that their religion is akin to terrorism, and that you don’t want their ‘kind’ around you. That’s speech, and you are free to say it. However, do you think your employer shouldn’t also then have a right to fire you?
Business owners have a right to control their image, and when you say something that reflects poorly on them, while that is certainly subjective, they have the right to remove you from a position that can do them harm.
First Amendment Center