You’re probably familiar with the First Amendment and its requirement that Congress not limit or abridge “the freedom of speech, or of the press.” It surprises many people to learn, then that the First Amendment’s protections regarding freedom of speech don’t apply to a private company’s workplace. The amendment very specifically prevents the government from making any speech rules that restrict speech, but does not restrict companies or individuals from limiting speech.
There are employment laws in place that restrict a company from limiting certain forms of employee speech, such as discussion around wages, hours, and working conditions. However, restricting other forms of speech in the workplace, or firing employees who say things that are hurtful to a company and its image, is completely within the businesses prerogative.
A recent example of freedom of speech being limited by the workplace is the memo on Google’s diversity policy penned by James Damore, a software engineer with the company. He critiqued Google and argued that biological differences between the sexes is what causes less women to find employment in technology. He was, unsurprisingly, fired because of his memo. Google CEO Sundar Pichai responded that the company is in favor of self-expression, but that the theme of this memo was “offensive and not OK.”
Being a major corporation, Google has an extensive code of conduct policy in place that requires employees to work towards creating a safe workplace environment. Damore’s memo clearly violated this policy and having this employment document in place provided Google the grounds on which to fire him.
Similarly, the New York Times recently released guidelines for journalist’s use of social media to try and ensure the journalists, while tweeting and sharing as themselves, are portraying the voice and vision of the company consistently. Their guidelines range from not expressing partisan opinions to the best ways to respond to criticism from readers.
Businesses have the right to create employment policies regarding speech inside and outside the workplace in order to create corporate culture and project the business’s voice. They also have the right to fire an employee who does not follow these employment policies, so long as the policies do not discriminate against the employee for other reasons such as age, gender, or ethnicity.
If you’re concerned about what your team is saying, the best place to start is by creating a company workplace policy. You may use the policy to describe the type of workplace your company has and how internal communications must be handled. You can also create a policy for information shared with the public. New employment policies should be followed with training to ensure your team understands the new policies and have a chance to ask questions on how t0 comply.
For help crafting these policies and assurance they do not infringe on free speech or applicable employment laws, reach out for assistance to Chase Law Group, P.C. A call to (310) 545-7700 will help you set up a consultation where one of our experienced attorneys will review your situation and help you craft the policies that will best fit your business.