Restricting Speech as a Condition of Employment is Not a Scandal

Restricting speech is something wise people do without being told.


There are two kinds of scandals involving restricting speech.

The first is when a law is passed, or a government agent takes action to censor speech or punish speech. It is firmly stated in the First Amendment that Congress has no authority to restrict such speech. Since the time the First Amendment was ratified, that principle has been applied to all the state governments as well.

The other scandal is when an employer dispenses with expected social tolerance. This is not a legal matter (or shouldn’t be!) but it is still a scandal. People expect to not be fired from a job for their opinions about law, government, or religion. There are exceptions, in the case of religious organizations (or should be!), but in general people expect to do business in the world without having to worry about the political party of the merchant or customer.

Unhappily, sometimes the government actually enforces some kind of neutrality or non-discrimination. This is actually a kind of censorship and the First Amendment should prohibit it. An action may be intolerant and un-American, but that doesn’t make it a criminal matter. What this means is that we have areas where people are free to refuse business and others where they are restricted from doing so. Some people have the right to censor while others don’t. An example of this would be a company that is free to fire a man for having opposed homosexual marriage when it came up in a referendum in a society where people are prosecuted and fined for refusing business that advocates for homosexual marriage.

But yesterday I saw several libertarian groups up in arms about this story in the Times Free Press as if it was an obvious violation of the First Amendment: “City of South Pittsburg bans negative comments.”

Over the past year, city leaders say their work has been hampered by criticism and lies on social media.

At its December meeting, the South Pittsburg City Commission voted 4-1 to approve an “all-inclusive” social networking policy.

It applies to all city elected representatives, appointed board members, employees, volunteers, vendors, contractors and anyone associated with the town in an official capacity who uses social networks. The policy says those persons can’t post anything negative about the city, its employees or other associates.

Examples include posted videos, blogs, online forum discussions, Facebook and Twitter, Commissioner Jeff Powers said.

“It seems like every few meetings we’re having to address something that’s been on Facebook and created negative publicity,” he said. “This is just an industry standard nowadays.”

He said every city employee will have to sign an acknowledgement of the policy, and those who violate it can be reprimanded.

South Pittsburg, by the way, is located in Tennessee.

This policy may or may not be wise or necessary, but it is not unconstitutional. Companies want to put out a positive image. They always demand that employees refrain from making this job more difficult by publicizing criticism.

It would be different if the city was banning the expression of political or religious opinions. Not only would this be un-American behavior, but it would also mean depriving a group of taxpayers of access to jobs that they deserve to try for as much as anyone else.

In general, just because you have an opinion, and are politically free to do so, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t face consequences when you spread bad news about your employer. You employer has freedom as well, including the freedom to hire people who will help him with his public reputation.

Speech should be politically free, but that doesn’t mean it is free of consequences. The book of Proverbs in the Bible would indicate that restraining one’s own speech is necessary for those who are wise.