Does the First Amendment Apply at Your Company?

Does the First Amendment protect an employee in Texas, allowing him to say whatever he wants on the job–to take a knee in protest, to write a manifesto about how women don’t belong in the tech sector, or to tell the CEO of his company to “kiss my a—, Bob”?

Not a chance. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America says:

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.

By prohibiting Congress from passing laws that abridge freedom of speech, the Constitution did not limit a private sector employer’s right to fire an employee (on the other hand, government employees have some First Amendment protections).

In addition to no constitutional bar, businesses in Texas are protected because Texas follows the “at will” employment rule, meaning a private employer can fire an employee for a good reason, a bad reason or no reason at all, including firing an employee because the employer didn’t like something the employee said, either out loud or symbolically.

So, if Jerry Jones had decided to fire any Dallas Cowboy who kneeled during the National Anthem before the Monday Night Football game, the First Amendment would not have protected the player. Neither would Texas law. Interestingly, Jones came up with an inoffensive compromise by encouraging his players to kneel before the anthem to protest racial injustice and even kneeling with them. By the time the anthem played, the whole team was standing in unity, with arms locked together.

Google also was unhampered by the First Amendment when the company fired an employee in August for writing a manifesto blasting Google culture of diversity. Particularly, the employee argued that women occupied fewer leadership positions in the tech industry because of unsuitable personalities. For example, he said that women are more anxious, and therefore unable to handle the stress of high-powered leadership positions. He concluded that efforts by Google to place more women in technology and leadership were “unfair, divisive, and bad for business.”

However, the First Amendment’s application is not the end of the inquiry. There are other laws besides the First Amendment that an employer has to consider (in consultation with the company’s employment lawyer) before firing an employee for expressing herself.

  • Is the employee’s speech related to the employee’s religion? Employers even in the private sector cannot discriminate on the basis of religion and also must accommodate a person’s religion. The discrimination laws always trump the “at will” rule.
  • Is the employer allowing one group to express themselves but not another protected class? For example, if only African-American players for the Dallas Cowboys had kneeled during playing of the Star-Spangled Banner, but some white players failed to put their hands over their hearts, Jerry Jones may have faced a racial discrimination lawsuit if he had fired only the kneeling players for disrespect.
  • Are you punishing any employees for speaking a language other than English at work? For safety or productivity purposes, there may be a limited way in which you can do this during actual work time, but it is a very tricky area of the law and you don’t want to attempt this without serious consultation with your employment attorney.
  • Is the employee complaining about a safety violation, a crime or other public policy matter? In that case, there may be whistleblower statutes that protect the employee.
  • Is the employee expressing problems with wages, hours, shifts, policies or other terms and conditions of employment with other employees? Then the National Labor Relations Act may prohibit you from firing the employee because she is participating in “concerted activity” under this labor statute, even in a non-unionized workplace. This is what happened with the coal miner who sent a paltry bonus check back to the CEO with the words “kiss my a–, Bob” on them. A court made the coal company return that employee to work after he was fired, because his protest was protected concerted activity involving his pay.
  • Texas employers are prohibited from taking adverse action against an employee based on who the employee voted for or for refusing to reveal how he or she voted. Employers must allow employees time off to vote and to take leave to attend a local or state political convention and cannot threaten or retaliate against the employee for such attendance.

Interestingly, there are times when an employer almost has no choice but to fire an employee for expressing himself. For example, if an employee is sexually harassing another employee with lewd comments, suggestive emails and/or pornographic pictures, the hostile environment the harasser is causing with his words and actions may require the employer to fire him after completing an investigation, both to protect the company and the victim.

2 thoughts on “Does the First Amendment Apply at Your Company?

  1. Hi Vicki, Glad to see your good advice on this subject. I have been retired since 1998 but still remember your guidance on many employment issues.

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