Employment & Free Speech

So A&E (apparently) suspended Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the Robertson clan from Duck Dynasty, for homophobic & racist statements he gave in an interview. Naturally, there’s been a lot of outrage on all sides.

Let’s get something clear: this is not the First Amendment. That applies to the government, not private employers. Don’t even think of making it a First Amendment issue. Matt Yglesias is completely right on this. (And I disagree with him on a lot of things.) So let’s just get that out of the way: First Amendment applies to government, not to private employers.

However, be that as it may, is it still right for companies to terminate or suspend employees over voicing opinions and views, no matter how backward or detestable they may be? Sure, companies may have a right to do so, but it does not make it right. It may also be completely legal, but again, not right. It’s very clear it is legal, but it is not at all clear that it is right to me.

Libertarians frequently talk about the chilling effect on speech whenever government censors. What libertarians don’t talk about is the chilling effect when companies censor. Now, to a large degree, this is because employment is a largely voluntary activity. If you don’t like your company, you can leave. You can even blow the whistle and enjoy certain legal protections.

But you still have to deal with the consequences of those actions. And one of those consequences is losing your paycheck. In a world that is the end result of a century of rampant inflation, losing your paycheck means a lot of struggle and hardship. (Okay, it did before the rampant inflation too, but not nearly as much. With things costing less, I think it was easier to compensate.) To speak your mind and possibly lose your source of income that pays for your housing, food, clothing, transportation–everything–is one hell of a chilling effect.

Now that doesn’t really apply to Phil Robertson. He’s clearly well off and will not be harmed by this whatsoever. But most of us are not Phil Robertson. We don’t have those resources to fall back on. Even if we may have some resources, we may be facing hardship we are not ready to face.

The problem with then saying “Nobody should be fired for voicing their opinions” is that you have a free association issue. People should not be forced to associate themselves with people they don’t want to. That includes corporate management that wants nothing to do with a person who vocally articulates hateful or otherwise harmful rhetoric. I wouldn’t want to be around a gay-bashing homophobe, and I suspect most A&E employees don’t either. So by mandating some sort of “don’t fire” principle, you’re effectively forcing people to pal around with people they really don’t want to.

And that creates a whole heaping load of problems on its own. I mean, hello: hostile work environment lawsuits.

I want to make it clear that I don’t support homophobic or racist rhetoric. However, if that’s the content of Robertson’s speech, I’m still not sure that suspending him was the right thing for A&E to do. I also want to make it clear that I think that employers should not terminate employees based on voicing their opinions outside the office, so long as they are not bashing the company, the company’s clients, or even possibly the company’s vendors. I also want to make it clear that any resolution towards these problems should not involve new legislation; we know how that creates a horrible, unmitigated mess.

In short, I am very conflicted. I think good, sensible employers will realize they cannot punish employees for voicing their opinions and will not do so. Bad employers will, and they will lose talent and suffer. But at the same time, I hate what the guy has said and I wouldn’t want to work at a company if such speech was allowed to run rampant in the office. Yet if companies start punishing employees for speaking their mind, what kind of a world would we be living in?

And this is the real world, unfortunately, where nothing is easy and you get your dilemmas for free.

Image: By Njallis (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.