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Shut up and work! Vanderbilt professor examines the erosion of free expression in the workplace

May. 17, 2007, 3:20 PM

[Note: Vanderbilt has a campus broadcast facility with a dedicated fiber optic line for TV interviews and a radio ISDN line. A high resolution photo of Bruce Barry is available at www.vanderbilt.edu/news.]

An employee is fired for having a political bumper sticker on his car. Another is let go for complaining about co-workers on a MySpace page. A third person didn’t receive a call-back on a prospective job because of the sermon he gave on his church’s podcast. Are these violations of free speech? Are private companies breaking the law by firing or not hiring these people?

Bruce Barry, professor of sociology at Vanderbilt and professor of management at the Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management, said though these examples may sound farfetched, they’re not. Barry said the United States legal system gives employers wide latitude to suppress worker speech, even when it has little to do with the job or workplace.

“Employers in the private sector have almost no obligation to respect the expressive rights or impulses of those who work for them,” said Barry. “Even in public-sector jobs, where the government is the employer, the reach of the First Amendment is quite limited.”

Barry’s new book, Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace, gives an in-depth examination of the state of free speech for workers, both on and off the job.

Barry’s investigation looked at how forms of technology, like laptops, emails, blogs and websites blur the lines between what is considered on or off an employers’ physical premises or what happens during or after business hours.

These technologies also make a person’s thoughts and opinions far more accessible and less private than they once were. Barry said a person who puts his or her opinions out in cyberspace, has to be prepared for who might read that information.

“The same technology giving workers new avenues for expression is giving employers new ways to police it,” said Barry. “That blog or email intended to do nothing more than let off some steam after a tough day could become an alarm bell calling into question the employee’s judgment or stability.”

Barry said young people find themselves entering a workforce where employers many not be amused by prospective employees’ prior – and searchable – online behavior on social network sites such as MySpace and Facebook.

Barry said that employee freedom of expression also runs head first into business concerns about controlling brand image and corporate reputation. That often means controlling the expressive activities of their employees, even if what the employees are writing or saying seems harmless.

“Employers possess not just the legal ability to repress employee speech, but also all too frequently a reflexive impulse to do so,” said Barry.

Barry said this trend towards control of worker speech is more than just an inconvenience for employees. “An erosion of free expression at work isn’t a problem just for workplace culture and individual liberty; it poses risks for the health of civil society and deliberative democracy,” said Barry.

Barry added that communicating online isn’t just for trivial comments. It opens people up to communities of ideas and opinions which are the foundation of free expression.

But technology isn’t the only reason employers seem to be tightening the reigns on free speech. Barry noted that employment is less stable and more transitional than in the past, which means less individual economic security and more “workplace docility and self-censorship.”

Barry also observed that the decline of unions means fewer workers receive due-process protections when they speak out about workplace or other issues. And Barry speculated that corporations are becoming far more politically engaged, making them less tolerant of employee opinions that depart from the company’s preferred point of view.

So how can workers protect themselves? Barry suggested that using a personal email address, instead of one on an employer’s network, may give a person a better chance of shielding his or her speech.

“In jobs where email is conveyed through an employer-owned network, the employer has the unfettered ability to read anything and everything,” said Barry.

More information on Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace, including sample chapters, can be found at www.speechlessthebook.com.

Media Contact: Amy Wolf, (615) 322-NEWS
Amy.wolf@vanderbilt.edu

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