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Was it something I said? Legal protections for employee speech

Economic Policy Institute Paper: Executive summary – “At-will” employment is sometimes shorthanded as employers’ rights to fire employees (and employees’ right to quit) for a bad or arbitrary reason, or for no reason at all.  Among the bad or arbitrary reasons that employers sometimes fire workers: something the worker said, or something they didn’t say. Employees have been fired, often without legal recourse, for criticizing their companies on social media, for running for office, or even for having a bumper sticker supporting a political candidate whose election the boss opposes. The freedom of speech that so many Americans valorize is in practical effect illusory for many American workers. This report traces the legal rules governing freedom of speech at work. Following a summary that emphasizes the scope of the problem and gives examples, it begins by discussing the background rules of at-will employment, which establish that employers may generally terminate workers for what they say. This rule has its limits—for example, employers may not fire workers in contravention of a state’s explicit public policy—but judges tend to apply these exceptions in a patchy and inconsistent fashion. Further, because the First Amendment does not constrain private actors, private-sector workers cannot fall back on the constitution at all; even public-sector employers are often free to fire or discipline workers for their speech.”

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