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‘Free speech’ no protection to workers

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources,Workplace Communication,Workplace Conflict

The next time an employee argues that he has a First Amendment right to say whatever he wants at work, wear a T-shirt with a controversial message or display a sexually suggestive piece of art in the workplace, tell him that his First Amendment rights stopped the minute he walked through your door.

In fact, First Amendment free-speech protections do not apply in the private workplace. Your responsibility to maintain a harassment-free workplace comes first.

Recent case: A mechanic who worked on company delivery trucks was a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Following a heated political debate, he pasted several Confederate flag stickers on his toolbox.

When a black employee complained that the flags were offensive, the company asked the mechanic to remove them, even offering to buy him a new toolbox. He refused and was fired for violating the company's anti-harassment policy. He sued, citing his First Amendment free-speech rights.

The trial court dismissed the case, and a federal appeals court agreed. Employers have a right to minimize workplace conflict and avoid liability under federal anti-discrimination laws, and that can mean "preserving a harmonious and efficient work environment," the court said. (Dixon v. Coburg Dairy Inc., No. 02-1266, 4th Cir., 2003)

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