When political speech gets you fired

This seems to be an issue which crops up every election cycle and 2016 will be no different. It used to be considered bad form to discuss politics at work (or family dinners for that matter) and if you did so it could lead to problems. But since the internet ruins everything it touches, now you can get in trouble for things you say outside of work, blog or post to Facebook as well. When your boss catches wind of it, if they happen to subscribe to a different political ideology, you may wind up feeling the pressure or even being shown the door. Alina Tugend offers a few examples from the past.

During the 2004 presidential campaign, Lynne Gobbell was fired from her job in Moulton, Ala., because her car had a Kerry/Edwards bumper sticker. Her boss was a strong George W. Bush supporter. Her story has an interesting twist. When news of her dismissal became public, she was hired by the Kerry campaign.

In 2011, Megan Geller, a waitress at an Outback Steakhouse in Illinois, said that she was fired for wearing a brightly colored bracelet with the motto, “Don’t Tread On Me,” which is used by the Tea Party; her mother got her the bracelet at a Tea Party event. Ms. Geller said a couple complained to the manager and she was fired. Outback said it was for other reasons, but the incident prompted a protest in front of the restaurant.

And the next year, Patricia Kunkle filed a lawsuit claiming she had been fired from an Ohio military contracting company for voting for President Obama. The company said she was laid off for economic reasons and the case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

As the author points out, the vast majority of working Americans don’t enjoy any sort of protection from resource actions by the management on the basis of political affiliation. Government employees and union members are the exceptions (of course) but for most of the rest of us that’s simply not the case.

[A]nyone who works for a government office, whether local, state or federal, is for the most part protected by the First Amendment, as long an employee’s actions don’t disrupt the workplace, said Lee Rowland, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. Federal employees are also guided by the Hatch Act, which limits some political activity, such as wearing partisan political buttons while on duty or soliciting or receiving political contributions.

And workers who belong to unions generally have more protection and can be fired for only specific job-related reasons, which typically wouldn’t include political activity, Ms. Brantner said.

I’d love to live in a world where everyone could just speak their mind without any consequences, but we don’t. As the author notes, the First Amendment doesn’t assure you a lack of reprisal for your opinions from private business… just from the government. And while some states have attempted to put measures in place to prevent such things, the reality is that they are nearly unenforceable. Unless the employer is a complete idiot (and the type of person who generally doesn’t remain financially successful for long) they can always find ways to work around those rules. If they don’t care for you spouting off about liberals or conservatives at the water cooler, they can simply decide that your work isn’t quite as good any more. Or perhaps the business outlook isn’t as good as they thought and it’s time to cut back. Sometimes it can be for no reason at all, because nobody in the private sector is assured a job.

Fortunately for most workers, the internet still allows for at least some degree of anonymity unless somebody really has it out for you and has the resources to drag you out of the shadows. Unless you do it for a living, you can probably blog or leave comments at various web sites, taking part in the conversation without having to sign your name and alert your neighbors and employer. But that theory comes with the usual caveat. Just like the Hollywood starlets who had nude pictures on their phones, you have to remember that the internet is forever, and anything you put out there may, at some point, blow up on you. Only you can be the judge of how much risk you are at and how badly somebody may want to expose you.

As far as the original premise of the article goes, I’d personally fall back on that old rule of thumb I mentioned. If you avoid discussing politics, sex and religion at the office (and possibly when visting your in-laws) it may make for a slightly more boring life, but you’ll avoid a raft of potential problems as well.

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