Architectural Columns

Do First Amendment Free Speech Rights Extend to the Workplace?

By Susan McNeil

Without a doubt, we are living in turbulent times. If the current social and political climate is inspiring you to participate in a protest or post your opinions on social media, be aware that your actions may get you in trouble with your employer. A timely example of this is the fallout from the protest at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Some individuals who participated in the protest have been disciplined by their employers, even terminated. Others have faced discipline at work for posting passionate tweets about the protest or other controversial issues.

Query: Can these individuals be subjected to discipline by their employers for their actions or are their expressions protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution?

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not protect all speech.

Generally speaking, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is the basis for free speech protection, only prevents state actors, such as the federal and state government, from interfering with freedom of speech. As a result, government, or public sector, employees have some First Amendment protections but the same is not true for private sector workers.

It is important to understand that, even if you work in the public sector, not all speech is protected by the First Amendment. A public sector employee can still be disciplined when speech has a negative impact on the function of the public employer or adversely affects morale. Before imposing discipline, the public employer must balance “the interests of the [public employee], as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern, and the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.” Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563, 568 (1968). As a practical matter, if a public sector employee’s speech is discriminatory or obscene, a public employer can likely discipline the employee without running afoul of the First Amendment.

The First Amendment does not extend free speech rights to private settings, including private workplaces. So, a private sector employee’s social and political expressions are not shielded from employment consequences under the guise of freedom of speech and may very well result in workplace discipline. However, private employers cannot discipline employees for speech if the speech is protected by another law. For example, the National Labor Relations Act [“NLRA”] protects employees’ rights to communicate with one another about the terms and conditions of their employment. More specifically, employees have the right to engage in “protected activity” regarding their workplaces—talking about wages, sharing grievances, and organizing online are all protected activity under the NLRA. This is true in both union and non-union workplaces. Employees who are fired for posting online complaints about their wages, benefits, tip sharing arrangements, management, hours, or other work conditions could have a strong legal claim under the NLRA. Similarly, Title VII prohibits a private employer from imposing discipline on employees who express opinions in opposition of discrimination and harassment.

If you work in New York, you may have some protection from being terminated or otherwise disciplined for off-duty conduct. N.Y. Lab. L §201-d. More specifically, this provision makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee because of their political activities or legal recreational activities outside of work hours provided the activities do not take place on the employer’s premises and do not use the employer’s property. Under this provision, protected political activities do not include protesting however, arguably, a peaceful protest may fall within the category of “legal recreational activities.”

Bottom line: Not all speech is shielded from adverse employment consequences so think twice before you post on social media or otherwise express your social and political opinions.

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