It’s a popular misconception that “freedom of speech” protections in the Constitution mean that you can say whatever you want in any circumstance and not have to deal with negative fallout. The truth is, your First Amendment rights protect you from being arrested, prosecuted, fined or imprisoned for things you say. But if you’re a worker expressing opinions at work that others find objectionable, don’t count on the law necessarily protecting you from employment consequences.
If you’re an employer, be aware that in certain contexts you can get in hot water for taking action against an employee over what he or she says, especially if it’s political, so talk to a lawyer before taking action.
Take the case of Kimberly Collins. She worked for a hotel in Charleston, S.C., for nearly 30 years and had been promoted multiple times. In the aftermath of protests over the death of an unarmed black man who’d been shot and killed by Charleston police, Collins, who is white, apparently voiced to three African-American supervisors her negative opinions about the protests, race relations in general under President Barack Obama and the diversity training hotel employees had to undergo.
The supervisors told Collins’s direct boss about the conversation, complaining not just about what she said but also about her allegedly belligerent, hostile tone, which apparently included wagging her finger in a co-worker’s face.
Her boss suspended her before firing her, telling her that he couldn’t have her voicing political opinions in the hotel.
Collins sued, citing state law barring employers from firing workers for exercising “political rights and privileges” and federal laws protecting employees from race discrimination (she claimed she was fired in part because she was white). The employer countered that it wasn’t what she said or her race that got her fired, but rather her “rudeness, insubordination and disrespect” toward superiors while saying it.
A federal judge threw out the federal claims, saying Collins did not make out a case that she was fired based on her race. But he ruled that the state-law claims could proceed, although there’s no guarantee they’ll go anywhere with a jury.
Either way, however, this case is a good reminder for employees to use good judgment when discussing controversial issues at work and for employers to seek legal counsel before disciplining an employee who engages in such discussions.