The end of the current session of the United States Supreme Court has seen the Court issue rulings on many hot-button political topics including gun control, abortion, immigration, and environmental protection laws. These rulings, along with the January 6th Commission’s ongoing public hearings, have created an environment of heightened political tension and stress.
While the decisions themselves may be unrelated to an employer’s business, employers can still be impacted by these decisions through their employees’ reactions and interactions with one another. One major way that employers can be impacted is when employees’ political discussions move from civil debate and discussion to accusations of bullying and harassment. What then, if anything, can employers do to ensure that political discussions in the workplace do not result in lost productivity, damaged working relationships, and an overall loss of employee morale?
Private Employers vs. Governmental Restrictions on Speech
For many Maryland employers, the answer may seem counterintuitive. While the First Amendment and the Maryland Declaration of Rights create, with certain limitations, freedom of speech, that freedom only applies to governmental restrictions on speech. Neither the First Amendment nor the Maryland Declaration of Rights applies to private employers, whose ability to restrict certain workplace speech is broad, so long as such restrictions do not violate laws prohibiting discrimination or the rights of employees to collectively bargain.
As a result, employers are permitted to implement and enforce policies designed to promote workplace harmony by preventing political arguments, bullying and harassment. For example, the First Circuit recently upheld Whole Foods’ right to discipline employees wearing “Black Lives Matter” masks in violation of their internal policies against employees wearing political paraphernalia at work. In doing so, the Court rejected the employees’ arguments that these policies violated their First Amendment rights and/or constituted racial discrimination. Instead, the Court upheld the long-standing notion that, so long as policies are not enforced in a discriminatory manner, employers may prohibit political speech at work.
If you have questions about how to implement workplace policies promoting a harmonious workplace or preventing political arguments from occurring on company time, please contact one of our attorneys at (410) 522-1020 to set up an appointment.