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Freedom Of Expression In The Workplace

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Freedom of speech as well as expression is a First Amendment Constitutional right that is arguably the most often challenged amendment in the court system today. I have long hand the view that companies should be able to place reasonable limits on freedom of expression in the workplace. Our own Federal government places restrictions on both in and out of workplace expression. My father, who was Chief Federal Probation Officer for the Middle District of North Carolina, was not allowed to place political campaign signs on his own property while employed by the United States Government. I have not been permitted the same privilege, as my wife is a Physician employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Had we placed signage on our property, we would have been subject to fines and possible termination. This is the impetus for why I believe non-government owned entities should be allowed to mandate what they view as acceptable freedom of speech and expression in the workplace. 

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In the workplace, freedom of expression in a fashion is well defined by Bruce Barry in which he states: “workplace freedom of expression is the ability to engage in legally protected acts of expression at or away from the workplace, on subjects related or unrelated to the workplace, free from the threat of formal or informal workplace retribution, discipline, or discharge”. This is a utopic definition, because today’s business landscape is not tolerant of many items of self-expression. Largely, this can be attributed to the fast pace at which technology has been adopted in today’s business world. Electronic surveillance, either of web browsing, cameras, or social media, leads to employees being very muted regarding stating their viewpoints. Furthermore, many corporations are becoming involved in politically partisan activities. Another key component of workplace expression is the fact that Americans are working more and more hours and the workplace becomes their de facto community for debate and discussion. Should corporations choose to stifle the free exchange of information (within reason), they run the risk of alienating employees and losing quality talent.

Acts of expression outside the workplace should be far less limited, except when it violates corporate standards. Many employment contracts include language regarding how an employee is expected to carry oneself both inside and outside the workplace, and oftentimes this includes a clause about speech. It is reasonable to expect employees to not undermine their employer, because one could argue from a contractual perspective that employees are contractually employed by the corporation, having contractual obligations are morally necessary in a free-market democratic society; therefore, honoring one’s contract is morally responsible. Moreover, any employee who criticizes his or her corporation in public receives no potential benefit from doing so, as they are putting their own livelihood at risk. While it is true there may be cases of campaigning for corporate social responsibility outside of the workplace that may serve some benefit to the community as a whole, most cases of employee or employer criticism at any organizational level are by and large self-monitored and should not require any restrictions other than those contractually laid out. 

09 March 2021

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