What Employee Speech Is Protected in the Workplace?

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Employees don't have a constitutional right to free speech at work, but employers still need to be aware of federal and state laws that do protect workers' speech in certain situations.

The First Amendment guarantees citizens the protection of free speech from intrusion by the federal government, explained Grant Alexander, an attorney with Alston & Bird in Los Angeles. "The First Amendment does not apply to private actors, and employers are private actors."

Thus, government employees do have some First Amendment protections. "Employees working in the private sector often [don't understand] that the constitutional First Amendment right to free speech applies to government employees but not employees working for businesses," said Christopher Olmsted, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in San Diego.

But that doesn't mean that businesses can curb all employee speech. For instance, private-sector employees have the right to engage in concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This applies to workers in both union and nonunion settings.

The NLRA protects employees' right to discuss the terms and conditions of their employment, said Steve Hernández, an attorney with Barnes & Thornburg in Los Angeles. For example, workers are protected if they discuss their wages with each other, decide they're not being paid enough and seek raises from their employer.

Employees also have the right to talk about possible unlawful conduct in the workplace. Under various federal laws, employees may complain about harassment, discrimination, workplace safety violations and other issues. "However, employees don't have the freedom or right to express racist, sexist or other discriminatory comments where such comments constitute violations of these laws," Olmsted noted.

Social Media

Employers should be mindful of how social media and policies affecting the use of social media interact with employee rights, Alexander said. In certain states, employees have the right to engage in lawful conduct when they are off the clock, and that may impact how social media policies are crafted and implemented, he added.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing and Leveraging Workplace Use of Social Media]

Employers must also be careful not to run afoul of the NLRA when disciplining employees for their social media activities, Hernández noted.

An employee's posts on social media platforms might be considered protected concerted activity if the employee is discussing working conditions and other labor relations matters. In recent years, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and courts have found that social media posts might be protected even if they contain profanities or sound disloyal to the business.

Thus, employers should ensure that their social media policies and practices can't be reasonably perceived as restricting such discussions.

Now that the NLRB has a Republican majority, it has shifted a bit in its stance to a more employer-friendly position, Hernández noted. But employers still can't stop workers from discussing the terms and conditions of their employment, he said.

State Laws

State laws may also enhance workers' rights to discuss certain topics. State laws protecting lawful off-duty conduct vary, so employers should check the laws in their states to see what is covered.

Although private employers may regulate political speech in the workplace without violating the Constitution, some state laws specifically protect political expression. In California, employees cannot be discriminated against based upon their political affiliation or political activity, Alexander noted. However, the protection does not necessarily give employees a right to speech in the workplace, he added.

In Oregon, the Worker Freedom Act prohibits employers from forcing workers to attend political meetings and distribute political communications.

Most states have a presumption of at-will employment, which means either the employer or the worker can terminate the employment for any lawful reason, but employers should be mindful that employees still have certain rights in the workplace that cannot be curbed, Alexander said. 

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