Free Speech in the Workplace?
You do not have to be a Constitutional scholar to know that one of the basic freedoms associated with being an American citizen is the First Amendment right of free speech. Most of us also know that the right of free speech comes with responsibility. For example, we know that a person can be arrested for inciting panic if they cause a stampeded by falsely yelling “FIRE” in a crowded movie theatre. In that case, the police will not be held liable for violating the individual’s right of free speech because the public interest outweighs the individual’s right.
But what about free speech in the workplace? Does your employer violate your right of free speech when it imposes a rule against talking about politics in the office? Or how about if you get fired for speaking out against that policy?
Can and employee sue their employer for infringing upon their right of free speech and/or retaliating against the employee for exercising their right to speak?
The answer to that question depends upon who the employer is. If you work for a privately owned company, then no. If you work for the government, then yes.
To pursue a claim for violation of your constitutional rights you need a government actor. The Bill of Rights is the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution. It spells out Americans’ rights in relation to their government. It guarantees civil rights and liberties to the individual-like freedom of speech, press, and religion.
So, if a municipal employee speaks out against the policy at a city council meeting and is fired, then yes, there is possible First Amendment claim. However, if an employee of ABC widget factory complains about the policy at a shareholder’s meeting, that employee cannot sue for a violation of his right of free speech.