The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees US citizens the right to “freedom of speech.” Citizens may freely express themselves in a public forum on any subject, including political topics, and rest assured that there will be no detrimental consequences. This is a known fact and beyond contest. Right?
The Devil Is in the Details
The First Amendment reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Oh, those pesky details. Note the amendment specifies “Congress shall make no law.” Unless a person is an employee of Congress, those precious freedom of speech protections may not apply.
Before You Join In
Before you join in a protest or send that Tweet, there are a few precautions you should consider:
- Understand your company’s policies on employee speech that could potentially be considered negative;
- Talk to someone you trust at work about what you’re planning and get their input on possible consequences;
- Find out if anyone in the company has been disciplined for issues relating to speech or political activism.
Online Political Activism Is Risky Business
When social media enters the mix, the potential risks for speaking one’s mind increase exponentially with each “like,” “share” and “tweet.” Expressing political views on a contentious issue or actively promoting and endorsing a candidate (or even not promoting a specific candidate) can pose a risk. If an employer believes an employee’s stated opinion or supported political candidate reflects negatively on the company, or that their actions fall below an expected level of professionalism, the employee may face disciplinary action that could end in termination.
Those practicing activism via the Internet use email, social media postings, live-casting and podcasts to communicate and disseminate information.
Online political activism is usually categorized in one of three ways: awareness and advocacy, organization and mobilization, or action/reaction. Examples could include:
- Circulating a call-to-action meme about an upcoming politically themed demonstration
- Posting an essay arguing for or against one side of a political issue on social media
- Forwarding an email to family, friends and co-workers encouraging them to donate to a candidate’s campaign
- Circulating petitions supporting or opposing political candidates or issues
- Advocating for or against an issue by “liking” a posting or meme about it
- Forwarding “tweets” to family, friends and co-workers that include statements about a candidate or issue, either for or against.
- Display of a candidate’s photo, banner or slogan on a website or social media page
Any of these activities, even those undertaken from a private home or public venue, or those taking place during nonworking hours can be grounds for discipline and/or termination.
An online footprint can go so far as to hinder one’s chances in the hiring process. Recruiting expert Alysse Metzler, in her 2013 book “The Recruiting Snitch,” found over 70 percent of recruiters for US companies investigate potential employees on social media before hiring. According to Metzler, an online presence dominated by political views raises warning flags.
We the People
It is human nature to take a “That won’t happen to me” approach to hypothetical situations, such as getting fired for making a post to Facebook. But the reality is that it does happen. There are cases now making their way through the court systems in which employers terminated employees for participating in organized activism, for political statements and affiliations.
In the coming years, the lines between what is and is not protected speech may be more clearly delineated. Employers may revise their company handbook or onboarding materials to clarify definitions of which activities are acceptable and which are not.
Until then, take care in what you do and say. Neither employee nor employer is as protected as they may seem.