The Freedom to Speak Your Mind

“It’s a hobby. Some people like to play instruments, I like to write.” That is how Sharon explained her passion for publishing her blog on the Internet. In the olden days (about five years ago) people were content to write their daily musings in a personal journal, seen by no one except close friends and trespassers. With the advent of the Internet, there has inexplicably come the desire to publish even the most mundane thoughts for all the world to see.

In Sharon’s case, her blog was a daily report of her life, which included what was going on at work. It was not at all mean spirited, but if she felt someone had acted unfairly at the office, she might elect to report that fact in her blog. Even then, however, in order to avoid embarrassing the people she discussed, she never mentioned anyone by name.

It didn’t take too long until word of her blog spread through her workplace, and it took even less time for one of her supervisors to take offense at something Sharon had written. When Sharon showed up for work the next day, she was fired on the spot.

“Now wait a second,” you say, “that is a violation of her First Amendment right to free speech.” An employer may not need a reason to fire an employee, but the reason cannot violate public policy. Surely this violates her right to free speech, the most fundamental and sacrosanct of all public policies in America. Not only that, but Sharon was fired for something she was doing on her own time. That can’t possibly be legal, right?

We’ll take them in turn. Since Sharon was just speaking her mind, was her termination a violation of her right to free speech? The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” Contrary to another popularly held misconception, the right to free speech only protects you from intrusion by the government, not by individuals or companies.  An employer has every right to tell you to shut the hell up. The First Amendment does not prevent a private employer from limiting what you can say.  Sorry Sharon, you can say whatever you want, but your employer doesn’t have to put up with it.

How about the fact that Sharon did this on her own time? Can an employer seek to control what an employee does on his or her own time? Most employees will scream, “what I do on my own time is my own business”, but that is not true. To use an extreme example to illustrate the point, assume that an employer found out that one of its employees was burglarizing homes on the weekend. Few would argue that the employer is somehow required to keep a burglar on the payroll. (Some will cry “innocent until proven guilty”, but again, only the government must treat you as innocent until proven guilty.) It is not in and of itself a violation of public policy to fire someone for what they do on their own time.

The issue of whether an employer can dictate what an employee does on his own time recently made big news when a large company announced that it would terminate any employees that tested positive for tobacco use. In other words, smoke at work, smoke at home, smoke anywhere and you lose your job. The vast majority of water cooler lawyers opined that the courts would shoot this down as a complete infringement of personal privacy and freedom, but they were wrong. Since an employer can fire you for any reason that does not violate public policy, that includes things you do off duty, including smoking, eating fatty foods or listening to Kenny G (which most people would consider just cause in any event).

The only time an employer cannot fire an employee for what he does on his own time is when such a limitation would itself create a violation of public policy. For example, terminating an employee because he voted on his own time is a violation of public policy because that would be an interference with the right to vote. There are also specific statutory protections for what you do on your own time. For instance, if you decide to contact other employees about forming a labor union, that is a protected activity and cannot result in your termination even though the employer may be opposed to formation of a union. However, absent a statute or a public policy, your employer can absolutely fire you for things you do on your own time. If your employer finds it strange that you collect salt and pepper shakers, the axe can fall.

In Sharon’s case, there was no protection for the musings in her blog. Posting negative comments about her employer was not deemed to be such a fundamental right that the termination violated public policy.

I know as people, especially attorneys, read these examples, they will recall a case they once read, or a story they were told, wherein people under similar circumstances did successfully sue for wrongful termination. Usually this is because while the cases sound similar, there was a crucial fact in one case that was not present in the other.

For example, I just told you the story of Sharon, and how she could do nothing about being fired for what she wrote in her blog about a supervisor. Nonetheless, I obtained a sizable judgment for two women who were fired for what they said about a supervisor. The difference was, in the case of these two women the company was trying to evaluate the supervisor, and told the employees that they would not be fired if they said bad things about her. They said bad things about her, so she fired them. There is an equitable principle called promissory estoppel. It basically holds that if you make a promise to someone, knowing they will rely on that representation, you can be held to that promise. I successfully sued the company on the basis that the employees had relied on the “no termination” promise to their detriment, and had to be compensated.

Don’t be falsely encouraged by friends and family that are certain someone under the same circumstances recovered a bazillion dollars, unless you can be certain the facts were identical.