Speaking OUt at Work

After a spring and summer without any sports, I thought I would be excited to watch NBA, NHL, and MLB games once they started up again at the end of July. But I find that I can’t get into it. I still pay attention to the Mets, but I haven’t given much attention to the NBA playoffs, which is unusual for me.
            I have noticed though that NBA players are wearing social justice slogans on their uniform jerseys and their warmups. Same goes for MLB players on their batting practice jerseys. That’s cool as far as I am concerned. The more we keep these issues on the front burner, the more likely we are to come to some kind of solution.
            But there are competing messages, and not everyone comes from the same place. And as we all know, folks can get passionate and emotional when advocating their points of view on these complex and divisive issues.
            So a fair question to ask is where and in what kinds of places should folks be allowed to express their opinions on a t-shirt, or a ball cap, or a banner? Obviously these expression issues implicate the First Amendment. And whether you are a conservative, a liberal, or somewhere in between, most of us agree that freedom of speech and expression are sacred human rights.
            We may not like what the other person has to say, but we sure want to be able to express our competing viewpoints freely.
            Last week President Trump urged Americans to boycott an American tire company because one of the company’s plants put out an internal memo to employees allowing one particular political viewpoint at work while prohibiting another.
            This is a confusing time for company managers. On the one hand, they do not want to be anti-American and limit an employee’s right to free expression. On the other hand, they don’t want to be called bigoted or racist when they allow types of expression that some view as bigoted or racist, or when they restrict anti-racist speech.
            So what can a company do when an employee wears a piece of clothing advocating one political viewpoint or another? It is tricky. I would like to be able to say that employers should have a blanket policy that prohibits any kind of political speech. No shirts with slogans. No emblems or colors. Simply show up for work, do your job, and speak your mind when you’re off the clock.
            But even that kind of even-handed policy can run afoul of the law. The National Labor Relations Act allows all employees, even non-union employees, to express themselves at work even if that expression might encroach into difficult political topics. Section 7 of the Act lets employees engage in concerted activity to promote their workplace interests. That may include anti-racist speech.
The right to speak is not unfettered, but it is broad. One court has said that the “speech” may be prohibited only if it jeopardizes employee safety, damages machinery or products, exacerbates employee dissension, or unreasonably interferes with a public image that the employer has established.
            In America, generally it is safer to allow speech of all sorts. Limiting speech tends to get you into trouble. America’s greatness is based on the exchange of ideas. It is a tricky era for all of us as we try to navigate these troubling times. Allowing folks to express themselves may be the best way to get through it.

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