Employees’ rights to free speech seems to become a hot topic right around election time. During a very rare interview with Larry King last night, Supreme Court Justice Breyer discussed the importance of free speech. Larry, being the inquisitive interviewer that he is, asked Justice Breyer about Reverend Terry Jones’s highly controversial decision to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of 9/11.
The Justice compared Jones’s plans to the burning of the American flag, a practice that the Justice was repulsed by during the Vietnam War era. Jones was eventually dissuaded from following through on his plan, thanks in part to calls from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. However, the Justice noted that Jones was well within his First Amendment rights to carry through with his controversial plan, reminding us all that freedom of speech applies equally to popular and unpopular speech.
While private employers are not subject to the restrictions of the First Amendment, this is certainly an issue for public employers to take to heart. Jones’s actions and the upcoming elections may well spark political speech within the office. Such speech is generally protected, unless it falls within one of a very few prohibited categories, including profanity and fighting words.