Office Politics 

In most states, free speech can get you fired.

You arrive at work early, work hard, and leave late. You're quiet, respectful, and well liked. You keep your nose clean. When someone brings up politics, you're smart enough to shut up or walk away. You wouldn't want to say anything that might annoy one of your co-workers.

Once you get home, though, you get to be yourself: a committed political activist. You work the phone bank at "Republocratic" headquarters, update your blog with scathing takedowns of opposing politicians, and chat up your neighbors to urge them to vote for your favorite candidates. But when you clock back in, you leave it at the door. You're cool.

One morning, your boss calls you into her office. "It has come to our attention that you're a Republocrat," she says. "We don't want your type working here. Gather your things and get out. You're fired."

Can she do that? Are your political opinions your employer's business? It depends on where you live.

My friend Jackie's (not her real name) employer recently gave her a choice: Give up your political blog or be fired. She lives in Florida, where labor laws prohibit discrimination based on sex or affliction with sickle-cell anemia -- but not political expression. Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, head of the Miami chapter of the ACLU says: "The [Florida] law is pretty clear that a private employer can fire someone based on their political speech, even when that political speech does not affect the terms and conditions of employment."

If Jackie lived in California or New York, she could sue her boss for even threatening her with dismissal. Unless you're spending your free time working for the violent overthrow of the government, California and New York protect a worker's right to political speech outside the workplace. (Companies may prohibit some workers, such as store clerks, from wearing political buttons or campaigning during work hours.) But only five states have laws protecting workers' offsite political speech.

Residents of the other 45 states get no help from federal law either. "Do not think you're protected by the First Amendment," says Lewis Maltby of the National Workrights Institute. "It doesn't apply to private employment." Even contractors that earn income from the government are exempt, as are private offices, shops, restaurants, and factories -- where 85 percent of Americans work. Last year's presidential election campaign exposed the problem.

Lynne Gobbell's boss fired her from her job after she refused his demand that she remove the Kerry-Edwards bumper sticker from her car. "I would like to find another job, but I would take that job back because I need to work," she told the Decatur, Tennessee, newspaper. "It upset me and made me mad that he could put a letter in my check expressing his [political] opinion, but I can't put something on my car expressing mine." Co-workers confirm that the company attached a pro-Bush letter to paychecks.

Gobbell's boss has that right under Tennessee law.

On the other side of the left-right divide, Playgirl magazine fired editor Michele Zipp after she wrote an article "admitting" that she was a Republican. "I wouldn't have hired you if I knew you were a Republican," Zipp quoted a Playgirl executive. As a New Yorker, she can sue for damages.

Liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, every American is entitled to his or her political opinions. But unless you're so wealthy that you can afford not to work, what good is the right to free speech if your employer can fire you for using it -- even after working hours? Our hodgepodge of conflicting state labor laws highlights the absurdity of the situation. Why can the leftover "W" sticker on your car get you canned in Florida but not in California? How can the United States bring democracy to the Middle East while allowing American citizens to be fired for expressing political opinions?

Extending national protection to outside-the-workplace political expression is something that even Democrats and Republicans in this highly partisan Congress ought to be able to agree upon. Neither party wants its supporters to lose their jobs. The obvious remedy is to add the protection of political speech to the list of activities and identifiers already covered under current federal labor laws: whistle blowing, race, color, national origin, religion, age, gender, etc. Only then will we truly be a nation that values and protects free speech.

Jackie, by the way, has ended her blog. In the town where she lives, jobs are hard to find. •

Ted Rall is the author of Wake Up, You're Liberal! and Generalissimo El Busho: Essays and Cartoons on the Bush Years.


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