Freedom of Speech in the Workplace


I’ve spoken about free speech a few times on this site, but almost always in a general sense. Noam Chomsky, to paraphrase, says that if you don’t believe in freedom of speech for views you disagree with then you don’t believe in it at all – no matter how opposite or offensive said views might be. Consequence is another thing entirely, and the workplace is an interesting – and rather dangerous – side of this.

As much as I simply do not care about the Israel Folau case, it does offer itself quite well to this topic. Having posted, unapologetically, content of a homophobic and discriminatory nature, he breached the terms of his contract with the NRL. Since, he’s only doubled down on his beliefs, trying (and failing) to raise funds under the pretext of legal fees (arguably, he’s just a fan of the prosperity Gospel) and courting more controversy (because the media doesn’t have enough to be outraged about).

But, while I have absolutely no sympathy for the man, subconscious bias needs to be set aside to discuss the freedom of speech issue at hand – should your place of work have the right to cut you off over something you have said? In the current system, they do – and there are some scenarios where this decision could be made with reasonable justification. Folau, for example, breached the terms of his contract, and given the nature of his comments, much of the public agree with the move.

Other cases would be things like harassing or bullying colleagues in some way, insulting or attempting to smear the reputation of the business and/or your boss, or leaking information. Now, upon reading all of those, opinions have probably been formed – depending on the circumstances, maybe you believe that terminating employment is justified, or maybe you think it would be wrong to do so. It’s a relatively grey area, when you look at it through the current lens.

I had a discussion earlier this week where I was told, due to my particularly ‘radical’ views, that if I were to try and get any job in the corporate sector that I might have some issues convincing people at the top that I’m not going to be a troublemaker. That is a fair assumption – if I disagreed with how a business operates, or indeed, the nature of business itself, then why would a corporate type give me a second glance? More on that later.

This is where things start to fall down on the business’ side, however. Ok, so the public was on the NRL’s team (forgive the mild sporting pun, I don’t even watch sport) when it was against Folau’s discriminatory remarks. Now imagine if, say, a nurse lost their job because they tried to report a superior for sexual harassment. Or if a hospitality worker lost their job for talking about unions a little too much for their stingy managers’ liking. It could be argued that these are completely different situations, and that some cases are justified while others aren’t.

But are they different?

In all of them, decisions were made by the respective business – regardless of what the public thinks, or what is ‘morally’ correct, only those in a position of power in the company get to make that choice. If one is ok, then by default all of them are. Once the power of free speech is ceded to the whims of business, the only limit is whatever each respective business sets. It could then be argued that, seeing as Folau signed the contract, that he did sign away that freedom – what utter nonsense. What business or organisation should dare have the power to dictate what can and cannot be said? To force someone to sign away their rights to work?

My old workplace was knocked down to make way for a new franchise. I, along with some others, were quite obviously against this change, but we had no power over it. We voiced these concerns at work openly, sometimes as a joke, at other times in serious discussion about how unfair it was. We worked the store and made the profit – why does some small group of businessmen who ‘own’ the place but have likely stepped foot inside only a handful of times get to make a decision that disrupts all the workers there? Some of us got good severance packages, others a confirmed job at a new location, etc. – we were treated surprisingly well, I must admit. But the choice was not our own – it was made for us.

I bring up this experience because the right to free speech is much the same. We, as individuals, should have the choice to say what we please, and I would suggest that the consequences, if any, is not something the business should have a say in. Such decisions, from freedom of speech to the continuation of the business itself, should belong to the workers. If a worker is sexually harassed and reports it, it shouldn’t be hushed and made to disappear, the people who work there should be able to dictate their own terms. In that scenario, the majority would probably call for the resignation or termination of whoever instigated the harassment.

If someone brings up unions, well, the whole workplace should be unionised already anyway, the decisions being made by them and not a select few with a power they hold by virtue of a title. When Folau made those statements about LGBT+ people, public sentiment and a decision made by the team and other stakeholders – not just the words of a contract written by a few at the top of the chain – should have been the process. Would it have reached the same verdict? Almost certainly, I imagine, and Folau would still be cut from the NRL as he is now. The difference isn’t that he is free of consequence, it’s that he is free to say what he wishes, and it is the people, his colleagues and the like, who get to make that choice.

Do I think Folau should’ve been let go? Yes – but not in the way that it was done. To go back to my example of probably being denied a corporate job, disregarding the fact that I’d probably not go for one of that sort anyway, how is it right that my opportunities are cut short simply because my views are different? Arguably, yes, some of my views may seem incompatible, I suppose, but the principle is the same – either I adhere to the restrictions on my freedom of speech, or I am locked out of those opportunities. The choice is not mine, it is made for me.

The more power we cede to corporations, the more destructive and tyrannical they will become. We don’t allow governments to censor our speech – that would be Orwellian. So why is it acceptable for businesses – unelected people in positions of disproportionate power – to have it? To put it simply…

It isn’t.

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