Thursday, December 19, 2013

What Do Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson, A Gay Teacher, Paula Deen, Martin Bashir, and An Expectant Boston Catholic Couple Have in Common?

Americans love their free speech.  Our big mouths are mouthing off about something all the time.  The Internet -an American invention after all- seems ready made to give the power of owning your own newspaper to anyone with a computer, blog, or Facebook.  I'm a case in point for sure.

This week brings another minor skirmish in America's culture wars with Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the Duck Dynasty reality TV show, inciting anger and a public backlash over expressing his personal views that black Americans were happier under segregation and that he lumps gay families in with the rape of animals (bestiality) and other sins.  While outside of the American mainstream, Robertson's views are probably not uncommon among his generation of working class whites in rural Louisiana.  Keep in mind that Paula Deen -who is 66 and from a white, working class background in rural Georgia- admitted using the "N word" in a court deposition.  She was quick to add that while this racist epithet was common in her youth in the South, it is no longer acceptable.  Under contract with the Food Network, the channel dropped Deen over the uproar from the racially charged lawsuit against her by a former employee.  Likewise, Robertson is under contract with the A&E channel.  Yesterday, his employer cut him from the show for his public remarks.

Robertson's remarks drew condemnation from the NAACP, GLAAD and others.  Others disagreed with his remarks but upheld his right to express his personal viewpoint -some out of free speech concerns and others out of support for his conservative interpretation of Christianity.  A&E's suspension in turn drew condemnation for Robertson supporters.

This post explores the issue of free speech and the workplace.

First of all, our US laws protect citizens' free speech from government interference.  Employers frequently put restrictions on employees' free speech as a condition of their employment.  These restrictions and situations arising from them come up across the political spectrum.  Cases in point:

  • A Pennsylvania Catholic school recently fired a popular teacher who has worked at the school for 12 years.  Why?  He and his long term male partner sought and received a license to marry in neighboring New Jersey.  The school felt his marriage would violate Catholic teachings -and thus also his contract.
  • In Massachusetts another Catholic school recently fired two heterosexual teachers.  Their wrongdoing?  They had begun dating and were expecting a child out of wedlock.  The school said their pregnancy violated their contracts.
  • Paula Deen lost her cooking show, book deals, and a sizable chunk of her cooking empire after an African American employee filed a racial discrimination case and Deen admitted to having used the "N word" in the past.
  • MSNBC suspended Martin Bashir for nasty remarks for public figure Sarah Palin.  He later resigned.
  • MSNBC and Alec Baldwin also parted ways this year after MSNBC cancelled his show and suspended him after video went public of him shouting anti-gay slurs at paparazzi.  
  • Now A&E have suspended Phil Robertson over at Duck Dynasty for violating his contract for expressing his opinions in a public GQ interview.  
The three teachers would likely either have their jobs or have good standing for wrongful termination if they worked at a public school.  They didn't:  they signed on to teach at Catholic schools that have particular morality clauses in their contracts.  Robertson's views would be mild in comparison to the viewpoints put forward on the Rush Limbaugh or other shows, but he agreed to work for A&E -on their terms.  

The point here is that when you sign a contract or agree to employment with a company, you are often agreeing to limit your free expression of your opinions and beliefs.  You might feel these seven people were wronged, but the law says they signed onto these jobs knowing the restrictions.  Be aware.

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