Friday, August 18, 2006

Freedom of speech and the workplace.

This raises an interesting question. Is your workplace wrong to discipline you for views you express outside of work? (I'm ignoring, out of sheer weariness, the "oppressed conservative" subtext.) On the whole, I'd say it depends on the views. However, at the end of the day, in a capitalist system, the employer can fire an employee for a host of reasons, many of which are extremely dubious: "bad attitude", for example, or "not being a team player". So, there's certainly enough wiggle-room to allow an employer to fire an employee for holding views the employer condemns (whether or not they are justified in condemning them). Moreover, employers have no obligation to give employees freedom of speech. As freedom of speech has been interpreted, at least in the Anglo-American tradition, there is no obligation on the state to protect the speaker from reprisals, only from being prevented from speaking in the first place. (There is also no obligation to provide a forum in which to speak.) So, if I speak my mind on a certain issue, and my employer takes exception to it, then my employer could, with some legitimacy, fire me; what the employer could not do is try to stop me from speaking my mind.

I don't think these are morally defensible distinctions. I've long had problems with the idea that you can have a "freedom of speech" which does not provide protection against retaliation, and does not provide a corresponding obligation to hear. However, I do think that an employer could reasonably fire someone for holding views the employer doesn't care for. After all, the employment relationship is a relationship -- if one individual cannot maintain the relationship due to some feature of one of the people in the relationship, then there seems to be good reason to end the relationship. This is not to say one should only enter relationships with entirely like-minded people, but that everyone has a limit on the divergence from their own views that they are willing to tolerate in people they relate to. That is, for every individual person, there are some views that the person finds "beyond the pale" and intolerable in a spouse, a friend, a co-worker, an employee -- or, for that matter, an employer. (Would it be wrong for an employee to quit a job because his employer espoused racist views?) This looks like a pretty basic feature of human relationships.

So, really: where's the oppression if an employer decides that an employee is no longer a "good fit"?


Larry Gambone said...

The classic case is the one in Idaho where an employee was fired for attending an environmental meeting, even though he did not speak at it. The courts to their everlasting shame said that this was OK. Since 80% of us work for someone else other than ourselves, by this very action, freedom of speech is meaningless. You should only be fired for something directly connected to your work, otherwise it is sheer tyranny, a kind of neo-feudalism.

ADHR said...

I'm sympathetic to the other side, though. Again, consider the case of racism: is it wrong for an employer to fire someone for, say, attending a KKK meeting on their time off? Or, consider the case of leaving an employer: would I be wrong to quit my job because my boss was a racist?

While freedom of speech is important, there's also the (human) necessity to maintain and develop relationships -- including employment ones. Which sometimes will require keeping certain views on the down-low.