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.