I was on a lunch break (off the clock) and off work premises at a restaurant with other co-workers, and someone made a racial remark. Can someone be fired for this? What happened to freedom of speech? This doesn’t seem right to me

Posted 05-27-2014

Ann Kiernan replies:

Free speech does not mean you can say whatever you want, whenever you want, with no consequences. After all, as the Supreme Court said in a case almost 100 years ago,”The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

Remember that the Constitution is a limit on the powers of government, and that what the First Amendment does prohibit is action by the government (federal, state, county, municipal) restricting speech. That constitutional guarantee simply does not apply to the private sector. If racist off-duty remarks or actions affect the workplace, the employer has the right—indeed, the obligation—to take corrective action. (Just look at Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who is likely to lose ownership of the NBA team because of his racist remarks to his mistress!)

Thanks for the interesting question.

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