I’m going to preface this post with the disclaimer that I’m not a Constitutional scholar, though I’ve played one on Twitter. But I have read the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights front to back, and I keep a copy near my desk for reference. Comes with being a Poli Sci major. And a major civics geek.
My favorite amendment* to the Constitution is the first one, because it’s the Freedom of Speech protection that makes it possible for me to write this blog post without fear of recrimination from my government. In fact, I can even write something like “President Obama is a big fat doody-head”, and (presumably) I won’t have to worry about federal agents whisking me out of the pick-up lane at school and sticking me in a Gitmo prison.
(I say “presumably” because there are certain concerns over the Patriot Act and other clandestine policies of the U.S. government that they abridge our Constitutional protections in service of the War on Terror. So before I hear the low-frequency buzz of a drone over my backyard, I will clarify that I do not now nor have I ever believed President Obama to be a big fat doody-head.)
There are, of course, some exceptions to the “free speech” rule. You cannot endanger the public while exercising your right to speak (the old “You can’t yell ‘Fire’ in a crowded movie theater” exception). You also cannot make threats, nor incite others to violence, and there are limits on the lies you can spread about others and the smut you may propagate. The First Amendment holds so many nuanced interpretations that it’s nearly impossible to consider it a cut-and-dried matter.
Except when those who want to speak inappropriately about their employers, friends, teachers, etc. without any consequence use the argument of “Free Speech”.
What some folks seem to forget is that the First Amendment is a protection from the government—not from your employer, your peers, your parents, etc. Case in point: Deb Ng recently published a great blog post about the ill-conceived idea of creating a Twitter account to complain about and mock customers of a certain supermarket chain. She didn’t take issue that someone felt the need to create a place on the web to vent and commiserate with other employees of this store; she took issue (rightfully so) with the way the Twitter account used the supermarket’s logo on their profile, as well as how they not only specifically identified the business, but many posting to this account with their own stories used their actual identities. Not only does this put the supermarket in a bad light, but it endangers the jobs of those careless enough to participate in the online bitch fest. Many of those taking umbrage with her post cite their right to “free speech”.
IT’S NOT ABOUT FREE SPEECH! IT’S ABOUT PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY!
I have seen this all too often on the web. Many Americans feel they can say whatever they like because we enjoy protected speech. Guess what? It only applies to the government! Your employer can—and should—fire your butt if your speech reflects poorly on their business. This happened recently during the Chik-Fil-A debacle. An executive with a small medical technology firm decided to express his support of the Chik-Fil-A protestors by videotaping himself haranguing a young CFA employee in the drive-thru. His actions were not illegal, but they were troublesome. His company terminated him for conduct unbecoming an executive of his caliber. His actions reflected poorly on his employer, and his employer did what they had to do to protect their brand.
Now, there are some instances when it may not be legal for a company to terminate their employees for their speech, e.g. political speech, whistleblowing, or communicating concerns about low wages or unfair labor practices. But bad-mouthing the business you work for or your customers and clients? Embarrassing them or doing harm to their brand? Not protected speech, just plain stupid.
What we can take away from this is a maxim that I abide by:
Just because you have the right to do it, doesn’t make it right to do.
Think before you speak. Don’t trivialize our precious First Amendment by wrapping the flag around you just because you think it’s your right to complain about your boss.
What are your thoughts? Do people take the “free speech” argument too far?*I’m also partial to the 14th Amendment, but it’s obviously not well understood, or else we wouldn’t have needed a 19th Amendment nor a Civil Rights Act, and there still wouldn’t be arguments for an Equal Rights Amendment.