“Free Speech,” or “First Amendment Rights,” is a fundamental concept of modern society, but in the employment context, it has its limitations.
First and foremost, an employee of a private corporation cannot assert that restrictions on the employee’s verbal and non-verbal conduct violate his or her First Amendment rights. That is for the simple reason that the First Amendment restricts governmental action, not the actions of private individuals or private corporations. A public employer needs to observe the public employer’s First Amendment rights since it is a government entity. But for a private employer, the First Amendment has no application.
Only if an employee’s verbal or non-verbal conduct impacts other statutory protections does his or her freedom of speech become an intelligible concept in the employment context. For example, the NLRB has made clear that private employer restrictions on employee criticism of employers are limited as potential restrictions on the right to protected, concerted activity guaranteed employees under the National Labor Relations Act. Another example of a “free speech” issue for a private employer would be a restriction on what an employee can or cannot say in response to a suspected illegality or violation of company policy since that could implicate Whistleblower Act protections. In some cases, certain restrictions on speech could raise discrimination concerns. But the common variety complaints that an employee may have about employer workplace restrictions on personal discussions, political talk, or other opinions do not fall under the category of constitutionally-protected First Amendment rights.
Takeaway: When an employer is confronted with an employee complaining that his or her “First Amendment” or “Constitutional Free Speech” rights have been violated, unless the employer is a public employer, the employee has not raised a legal right. Only if the verbal or non-verbal speech restrictions at issue tie into other employee legally-protected conduct does the concept of “free speech” have any workplace relevance. If it comes up, the employer should exercise its “right to counsel” and talk it through with an employment lawyer.