In Speechless: The Erosion of Free Speech in the American Workplace (Berrett Koehler, 2007), Bruce Barry has written a book that should be required reading for citizens, regardless of their political orientation. Simultaneously clever and conversational, Barry takes the reader on a journey through workplace free speech cases that leaves one angry and confused about the practical meaning of, and limits to, free speech.
While the rules are different for “public” and “private” workplaces, the news Barry delivers is the same: while there are historic moments for optimism, in the most general sense, workplace free speech is not only more limited than you might imagine, but the constraints are getting tighter, and more and more confusing. As Barry notes after looking at multiple court cases concerning free speech in “public” workspaces: “To sum it up in one sentence: as a public employee you have rights to free expression except when you don’t” (p. 74). The difference between the things you can and can’t say are so confusing that silence becomes the ruling norm.
The same is true in different ways in public workplaces. A fairly recent example cited by Barry: Lynne Gobbell, a factory worker drove to work with a John Kerry bumper sticker on her car. Her boss—who had put pro Bush inserts in employee pay envelopes--demanded that Gobbell remove the sticker or lose her job. She lost her job.
With great detail, Barry provides us with multiple examples—some extreme, some subtle, some sure to anger Democrats and some to anger Republicans—that makes one begin to wonder: “How the hell have I not been aware of this?” More, given the trajectory Barry provides, one begins to wonder where we’ll be in fifty years. Relevant to readers here, Barry not only discusses the expected topics (e.g., politics, religion, harassment), but he also takes a look at the relationship between what one might say on a blog, and how one might be expected to be treated at work as a result (Hint: the news isn’t good).
On the level of examples alone, the book deserves to be read, but I think it should be required because of Barry’s approach to the meaning of free speech. First, Barry is concerned less with the cases themselves than with what is not said as a result of these cases; when one person is stopped from speaking out, we need to think about “the uncountable many who are discouraged or even intimidated from engaging in legitimate behavior (like expressive behavior) because arbitrary discipline without due process is readily available to their employers” (p. 57).
More, so that one doesn’t picture Barry as someone who believes in a conspiracy against free speech, he clearly underlines that “the culprit, instead, is a confluence of legal, political, economic, and managerial forces that make the workplace unfriendly, and growing unfriendlier, to free expression” (221). Nonetheless, the complexity of the problem means that we, as citizens, need to be more vigilant, need to push for laws that protect workers, need to reverse the erosion of free speech.
For Barry, doing noting is to sell out democracy itself. If a democratic culture only works toward better policy when the largest variety of reasoned voices are heard, we cannot afford to silence—overtly or implicitly, any of those voices. Returning to Barry, “When employers silence or chill employee speech, they aren’t just shaping their organization’s culture, they are undermining ‘democratic culture’--a society in which ordinary people can actively participate to lower barriers of rank and privilege and to develop influence over the institutions and forces that shape their futures” (p. 211).
In short, this is a small “d” democratic book, a patriotic book, a book that deserves (perhaps requires) your attention.
P.S. Xark asks a few questions:
Q: I’ve described your book, but what would you say it’s about?
Bruce Barry: My book is about the alarming state of free speech for American workers. It is generally legal in the country (with some exceptions, but not many) to fire people for engaging in free speech that makes employers uncomfortable, even if the speech has little or nothing to do with job or workplace. I assess the state of free speech for workers, both on and off the job, and arrive at the conclusion that freedom of speech in the workplace is excessively and needlessly limited. I also suggest some remedies.
Q: Are a lot of people getting in trouble with employers for their speech?
Bruce Barry: In the book I discuss many cases and examples where speech by employees at or outside of work has come under the scrutiny of their employers. Some are outrageous – people fired for blogs or podcasts on matters unrelated to work, for off-work involvement in local politics, or even for having an “inappropriate” political bumper sticker on a car. I won’t contend that there’s a rampant movement by employers to silence and punish every outbreak of non-work-related speech. But I do see a workplace climate for expression by employees that puts workers on notice and at risk of consequences for their speech.
Q: I can just hear someone saying, “He’s one of those nuts who thinks anyway can say anything at anytime. Are you saying that employers should allow workers to say anything they want whenever they want?
Bruce Barry: No, mine is not a manifesto for “anything goes.” There’s plenty of expression that employers need not tolerate, such as speech that is harassing or abusive or directly hostile to legitimate firm interests. But I am concerned that many employers are too quick to believe that individual expression that deviates from expectations or from the employer’s preferred point of view amounts to a threat to the business.
Q: The title of your book mentions the “erosion” of free expression. Is it getting worse?
Bruce Barry: Yes, I do see a chipping away at people’s free speech rights. Employers are more sensitive than ever to how employee actions might affect a firm’s image and reputation. Workers, meanwhile, are experiencing diminishing job security and less predictable career paths, which means more reasons to be concerned about how your employer may react to your extracurricular speech.
Q: With everything workers have to worry about these days –job security, wages, career advancement, health care, and all the rest – how much does free speech matter in the grand scheme of things?
Bruce Barry: It’s important not just because a little less employer tyranny would be nice; it matters for the kind of civil society we live in, and for the health of our democracy. For many, work is where people develop ties and affiliations that may lead to civic and political involvement. Employers who punish free speech, even if it doesn’t happen very often, send a chilling message to everyone else: your employer is willing to use its power to silence expression it doesn’t like. When workers perceive pressure to limit or self-censor their speech, detrimental effects on the quality of civic engagement are apt to follow.