Freedom of Speech in the Workplace: Think again.

September 25, 2007

The United States Constitution is often invoked as a source of workplace rights, particularly as it relates to freedom of speech, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, and even the right to bear arms. A quick civics lesson reveals that the Bill of Rights creates limits on the government’s actions to curb constitutional rights but does not typically restrain private employers from trampling constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.

Generally, employees of private sector employers have no constitutional “free speech” rights in the workplace, so take pause before you wrap yourself in the flag and speak your mind. In both Geary v. U.S. Steel Corp., 456 Pa. 171, 319 A.2d 174 (1974) and Wagner v. General Elec. Co., 760 F.Supp. 1146 (E.D. Pa. 1991), Pennsylvania courts rejected wrongful discharge claims based on First Amendment protects asserted by employees who were terminated for criticisms of their employers.

Gary Huber of the News Journal has an article on Freedom of speech? … better ask your boss which explores the circumstances of  firings for employees expressing their opinions. Employee comments need not be made at work. Employees have been fired for blogging and posting on MySpace.   Some sites offer advice on how to avoid termination for blogging.

An employer’s power to terminate an employee for expressions of opinion is not absolute. Notable exceptions exist for “union activity”, anti-retaliation provisions of discrimination laws, and Sarbanes-Oxley Act compliance. An excellent discussion of the law in these areas appears in a New York Law Journal article by Jeffery S. Klein and Nicholas J. Pappas entitled When Private Sector Employer Fires Worker for Blogging.

Many employers have chosen to adopt policies on employee communications for a whole range of purposes. Policies can be helpful in defining an employee’s actions in the following areas:

  • Authority to comment to news media on official matters
  • Authority to communicate with or about customers and vendors
  • Use of work time
  • Use of employer’s computer and other resources
  • Disclosure of confidential or proprietary information
  • Prohibition on content of communication that is disloyal, discriminatory, inflammatory, threatening, or disparaging of the company, its employees, customers, products, etc.

Since many corporations have blogs, they have also developed blogging policies and guidelines. IBM’s Blogging Policy is an excellent example of one employer’s approach.