How Does Freedom of Speech Affect the Workplace?

Free Speech at Work


Freedom of speech is one of America’s most fundamental rights that it gives its citizens. But when it comes to the workplace, freedom of speech can sometimes become disruptive and create tension among co-workers. As an employer, it’s important that you understand how freedom of speech affects the workplace and the boundaries you’re allowed to establish. Here’s what you need to know.

First Amendment Rights

As Americans, we all enjoy our First Amendment rights and the freedom we have to voice our opinion on matters. Unlike other countries with totalitarian governments and oppressive regimes, we can pretty much say whatever we want whenever we want. But things are different when it comes to the workplace.

Limitations of Freedom of Speech at Work

As an employer, you essentially have the power to quell any type of behavior that could be deemed as disruptive or that creates conflict within the workplace. This applies to freedom of speech. Although the full spectrum of First Amendment rights can get murky, it’s clear that employers have the ability to put limitations on freedom of speech.

Employment lawyer Sonja McGill of Bell Nunnally sums it up quite nicely with the following statement. “Freedom of speech really isn’t even a legal issue in the workplace. Unless you work for the government, you have to abide by the employer’s work rules. As long as they are not discriminatory or don’t violate the NLRA’s rules regarding unionization and concerted protected activity, you have to abide by them.”

What Does This Mean for You?

The bottom line is that it’s your right as an employer to create a civil workplace where everyone treats one another with respect. In order to achieve this type of civility, it often means that full fledged freedom of speech simply isn’t possible.

Take for instance the recent election. You could argue that America has never been more divided, and opposing opinions have created a massive rift between individuals. Without limitations on freedom of speech, it’s quite possible that your employees could wind up in some heated debates that would obviously be disruptive to operations.

As long as you’re not setting up rules that are inherently discriminatory, you have the complete right to set work rules that prohibit your employees from discussing certain topics such as political views, stances on ethics and so on.

An article from Virginia Tech summarizes it all quite nicely. “The First Amendment does not apply to employees in the private sector. Employees do not even have the right to discuss non-work related issues at all. Most employers allow it, but it’s important to realize that it is a privilege that the employer can revoke at any time. After all, the purpose of the workers is to work.”

So at the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide just how much freedom of speech you give to your employees. Ideally, you’ll let them have a reasonable amount so long as it doesn’t become disruptive.

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