San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has made a lot of waves for not standing during national anthem performances. And it has led a lot of employers to ask: Can workers who engage in such political protests be punished? Here’s the answer.
If you’re a private employer, you can punish workers for engaging in protests similar to Kaepernick’s if the protests violate an organizational rule or expectation, and/or causes a disruption in the business, or paints the organization in a negative light.
As attorney Karen Michael, of the consulting firm Karen Michael PLC, explained for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the San Francisco 49ers erred in part when the organization said Kaepernick has a “right” to protest during the national anthem what he calls the oppression of people of color in the U.S.
What the 49ers were referring to was Kaepernick’s protected speech rights under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. However, as Michael pointed out, the First Amendment only protects a person’s freedom of speech from interference by the government.
When a person works for a private organization — as Kaepernick does — the First Amendment doesn’t apply.
As a result, protesters who are employed by a private employer, and go against the established policy/rules of that employer, may be subject to discipline.
They’re only protected from government interference.
What this means for the election
To the potential benefit of private employers’, Kaepernick has brought the topic of First Amendment free speech rights to light at an opportune time.
This year’s Presidential Election is sure to spark a lot of heated debates in and around many offices this fall. And many employees may think they can say what they want under the banner of “freedom of speech.” But that’s simply not the case in the private sector, where they could be subject to discipline for what they say.
So if you feel political speech could start to make your work environment a hostile one, it may be a good idea to remind employees they have no protection from discipline under the First Amendment.
However, it’s also worth mentioning that if employee discussions in any way revolve around working conditions, their speech is likely protected by the National Labor Relations Act.
A recent survey of U.S. employees shows just how many workers have the First Amendment all wrong.
HubShout recently asked workers in its June 2016 Social Media Conduct Survey “Do you believe that getting fired because of a social media post is an infringement of First Amendment rights?”
The answer: 41.2% said “yes.”
Another 28.3% said “not sure,” while the remaining 30.4% said “no.”
That means more than 40% of U.S. workers think they can post what they want without consequences, which just isn’t the case if they work for a private employer.
As the HubShout survey revealed, this could be a fact worth mentioning in your social media or communication policies — just to set the record straight.