Liberty with Limitations

By Elizabeth Lehman

A “Unite the Right” white nationalist rally turned violent on Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia, leaving three people dead and more than a dozen injured.

Images of some participants of the white nationalist rally were captured and distributed widely across social media platforms. As a result, the identity and personal information of many of these protesters were revealed to the public and consequences were faced. Some were publicly ostracized by family members, while others lost jobs.

Consequently, the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and the right to protest have been widely discussed and debated.

With freedom of speech being protected by the First Amendment, questions are raised as to how fair and lawful it is for someone to lose their job because of involvement in a controversial group.

Paul Sracic, chair of Youngstown State University’s Department of Politics and International Relations, said it’s perfectly legal for private employers to terminate employees on these grounds.

“The First Amendment only protects people from actions by the Federal or State governments,” Sracic said. “You can’t bring a First Amendment case against a private employer.”

Adam Fuller, assistant professor of politics and international relations, said people’s livelihoods are in fact often threatened by what they say, even if their views are not as extreme as, for instance, members of neo-Nazi groups.

“We’re talking about people who just have regular points of view about all kinds of things, about ethnic groups, religions, gender, whatever that may be, they just don’t feel like they can say so,” Fuller said. “Otherwise, they’re going to face dire consequences at work, whether it’s something as severe as getting fired or suspended from their job, or having a pay cut or missing out on a promotion.”

Results of a Rasmussen Report released in late August echoed this fear. According to the poll, 28 percent of American adults only feel like they have true freedom of speech today.

“Most (66 percent) think, rather, they have to be careful not to say something politically incorrect to avoid getting in trouble,” the report said.

Michael Jerryson, YSU associate professor of religious studies, mentioned the recent controversy at Google. In early August, a 3,300-word manifesto written by a male employee became public. The document said women were not suited for jobs in technology for “biological reasons.” Jerryson said the man was fired as a result.

“How can you, as a female sitting next to this person, feel like you’re comfortable and accepted in the workplace?” Jerryson said. “That’s important and I think that a company needs to pay heed to and has to be responsible for protecting a good culture.”

He said the problem provides companies with an opportunity to find ways to promote civility and responsibility among employees. Jerryson said companies need to inform employees that their choices can adversely affect their agreement with their employer as well as the business culture in place.

“[Businesses] need to begin to breed more of this understanding, saying, ‘Look, it’s okay that you have views, but we need to be civil about it and be careful about it,’” Jerryson said.

Jerryson said he thinks the recent events are a wake up call for people, especially those who may have become overly emboldened in regards to their personal views.

“It’s a wake up call on their parts to say, ‘Oh wow, there are repercussions for us choosing to do these things. We have the freedom to do this, but [we] also recognize that by doing this, we are adversely affecting our work culture and the jobs that we have, and we can lose them for that reason,’” Jerryson said.