The freedom of expression guaranteed to every citizen of this country by the First Amendment to the Constitution is one of our most treasured rights. Every American knows that they are safe to express their political, religious or ideological views in public in a peaceful manner without fear of legal reprisal. But how does this Constitutional right manifest itself in the work environment? Can your employer fire you, or take other disciplinary measures, for your expressions while in the workplace?
The limits to the First Amendment
The right to free speech does not mean that you can say whatever you want wherever you want. There are certain places where, when you choose to enter, you implicitly agree to suspend or limit your First Amendment rights.
For example, the law may not protect students for wearing certain clothing or saying certain things while in school. This is true even when those same students would have the protection of the law for doing those same activities outside of school.
Free speech in the workplace
Thus, if your employer fires you or otherwise punishes you for your speech in the workplace, it may or may not have been a violation of your Constitutional rights, depending on a few important factors.
The first question you must determine is whether you work in the public or private sector. If your employer is a government agency, you do have First Amendment rights in the workplace, although they are somewhat more limited than if you were out on the street. If your employer is a private corporation, however, you do not have the protection of the First Amendment.
In other words, private employers have the right to set workplace speech policies for what employees can and cannot say, and they can enforce those policies through disciplinary actions. However, if an employer’s actions cross the line into discrimination, then the employee may have grounds to bring a wrongful determination or discrimination lawsuit against their employer.
Employee discipline is a complicated matter. The line between appropriate disciplinary action and violation of rights can be quite fine at times. That’s why it’s important to know exactly how far your rights extend in your workplace before you decide to express yourself.