It’s a perfect example of not just a battle for freedom in Egypt but a battle for freedom of speech for employees everywhere, especially those in the United States. Yes, the good old, supposedly-free United States.
When it comes to a worker’s free speech rights outside of offices and factories, employers can stomp on them if they choose. Basically, if you don’t work for the government, or have a union contract that stipulates otherwise, an employer can fire you for what you say, or tweet outside of the workplace.
Ghonim has already faced a harrowing experience after being detained by security forces in Egypt and spending a week blindfolded. But another big battle may still lie ahead for him, a battle for his career.
Early indications show the search engine giant’s executives are actually taking the high road and defending their employee’s right to protest.
This from a Wall Street Journal article today:
“We have passionate employees,” a Google manager says proudly.
And yet, even Google appears to be tiptoeing through this latest thicket. The company declines to speak on the record about Mr. Ghonim. But it does make several things very clear:
• Mr. Ghonim is on leave during his activism in Egypt and is acting on his own, not as an agent of the company. The public is making far too much of his connection to Google.
• What employees do on their own time is their own private matter, not something the company should govern, and therefore not something the company is concerned about.
• Google was worried about Mr. Ghonim’s safety when he was in detention, but now that he’s free it has no comment on his activities. It will welcome him back to work when he decides to return.
If Google really means it, that’s great news and other employer should follow suit.
The First Amendment says Congress can’t pass laws curtailing speech, but taking political sides or appearing to take sides can be hazardous to your employment, even if you’re not doing it during work time.
Last year, a New Jersey transit worker Derek Fenton was fired two days after he burned pages from a Quran outside the site of a proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, even though he was off the clock. The transit agency said he violated its code of ethics and “his trust as a state employee.”
And last summer Bryan Glover, an assistant coach for a middle school near Nashville, Tenn., said he was fired from his job for distributing via email a country music song he wrote disparaging President Obama. Unfortunately, parents of students were on his email list and his song offended some.
“The coach called me and said parents were upset that I was being politically incorrect and the song had racial overtones,” Glover told Fox News Radio. “An hour and a half later I was told I was being terminated.”
And one of the key cases that is often cited involved an Alabama woman who was fired a few years back from her job for having a Kerry for president bumper sticker.
One of the major misconceptions among workers is that they have free speech rights on the job or off the clock, said Donna Ballman, an employment attorney in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who represents employees and has seen a growing number of them disciplined lately for expressing their political opinions. “You can be terminated for any of your private behavior. What you write on a blog or say on Twitter.”
Few if any states have laws protecting employee free speech who work for private employers, but government employees tend to have more First Amendment rights said Risa Lieberwitz, professor of labor and employment law at Cornell University’s ILR School. But, she maintained, “The scope of those rights has been severely limited by a series of Supreme Court cases.”
And Ballman added, “There is no First Amendment in corporate America.”
While we all marvel at the history being made in Egypt and the role that one nebbishy employee is playing, maybe we should be thinking about the freedoms we still don’t have right here at home.