Free Speech Standards at Work are…Inconsistent

Whether or not you can speak up depends on whether you’re the one in power.

The idea of free, unfettered speech is under the microscope on a number of fronts lately. In addition to The Letter, which seems to confuse “freedom of speech” with “freedom of access to any platform free of consequences,” there’s also new instances of concern that speaking your mind politically or reacting negatively to a political or social story could be bad for your career.

Of course that’s only if you’re not the one in charge of a company or industry.

In one corner you have the president of Goya Foods, who has come under fire for his praising of President Trump, with some calling for a boycott of the brand’s products. Conservatives, of course, see such a boycott or other repercussions as part of an organized and maybe even illegal effort by The Left to tear down Trump and other Republicans. Anyone should be able to say what they like, and any attempts to stifle that is a catastrophic travesty the likes of which the Republic has ne’ertofore seen.

In the other corner, you have stories like this recent one, about an ESPN journalist suspended over using the F-word in a private email to a U.S. Senator regarding the NBA’s response to democracy protests in Hong Kong, itself an issue rife with concerns over free speech and corporate regulation.

And in a third corner, you have the president himself, who would like to not only actively suppress independent journalism but also publicly criticizes countless companies – most recently NASCAR – any time they take any stance counter to the one he prefers. The consequences of Trump tweeting negatively about a company can have disastrous results.

So, not to be too simplistic about the issue, which is it? Should people face non-governmental consequences for their speech or should such speech come with impunity? It seems the answer depends on which side you’re on politically and, importantly, if you’re a Lord or a Serf in your particular capitalism fiefdom.

If you’re a CEO or other executive, you apparently can say what you want. Throw as many fundraisers as you like for politicians that espouse racism or sexism and who want to continue paying homage to the Confederacy. Anyone who organizes a boycott is trying, it seems, to destroy a perfectly good company because someone in charge voices an opinion.

Never mind, of course, that these free market advocates don’t recognize the free market when it’s actually in action. People deciding, as a group or individually, to support or reject a brand because of their stated stance on a social or political issue is the very definition of the market’s freedom. In fact, it’s the same market freedom that had Republican’s pressuring country radio stations to take Dixie Chicks (now just The Chicks) records off the radio. More recently, there was a call for a boycott of Nike after it signed Colin Kaepernick to an endorsement contract.

If you’re a line worker, though, the rules seem to be different. Very different. The First Amendment doesn’t apply to most nongovernmental employees, and jobs are “at-will” where workers can be fired for any non-protected reason. People can be fired because of what they Tweet, what protests they take part in or anything else and the company can officially say they were let go because of some other work-related reason, even if it’s not accurate.

To be clear, I don’t think people should lose their jobs for political speech or beliefs. Even racists need jobs. But if we’re establishing a system where companies can claim it’s within their moral or religious rights to withhold birth control coverage from employees, maybe it should also be allowed for companies to fire someone because they marched with a bunch of Nazis in Charlottesville.

At the moment, the balance of power seems skewed. You can’t claim people are free to vote with their wallets and with their feet and their choices in one instance and then call foul when they do the same thing in a way you disagree with. And you can’t claim a company is within its rights to fire someone for their beliefs but then complain when there are calls for similar consequences against an executive. Or, at least, you shouldn’t, unless of course your true ideology isn’t free speech but the protection of the powerful and the maintaining of a status quo where individuals have less voice in society than those with access to the levels of power.