Public sector workers have greater free speech rights than do private sector workers

The NY Times writes in “Speaking Freely About Politics Can Cost You Your Job” that private sector workers ‘ “…don’t have the right to speak freely in the workplace.” Or even outside it.’

Unlike public sector workers: “… anyone who works for a government office, whether local, state or federal, is for the most part protected by the First Amendment”.

Public sector workers have a greater free speech right than do private sector workers (which is most of the workers in the country).

The Houston Chronicle notes this disparity:

The United States Constitution prevents only governments, not private citizens, businesses or organizations, from interfering with a person’s freedom of speech. Therefore, private-sector employers can generally demote or fire employees based upon the views they express. Government employees enjoy protection for statements they make as citizens on issues of public concern, unless the speech hurts the government agency’s ability to function

Not only can private sector employers limit your freedom of speech, they have a legal right to compel some workers to engage in political speech. In the private sector, certain employees can be ordered to vote a certain way in to retain their job.

Federal election laws allow corporations to persuade a “restricted class” of individuals to vote for or against a political candidate. The “restricted class” is defined as “executive or administrative personnel” who are employed by a corporation on a salary basis and have policy making, managerial, professional or supervisory responsibilities.

CBS News also notes that employers have a right, in most states, to ask you to vote a certain way but since your ballot is secret they cannot know how you voted.

Stated another way, private sector workers may be legally muzzled in what they say, and can be forced to cast votes against their personal beliefs and views. In my state, like many states, public sector workers are even protected by a State law that prohibits retaliation in any form against a public sector worker for their political speech.

This disparity warps public discourse as the small public sector cohort can be louder than the private sector cohort that is nearly 6x larger in size.

By creating two classes of free speech – those in a protected class and those who are not in a protected class – we distort public discourse.

Public sector workers have a greater freedom to influence the political process than do private sector workers, giving public sector workers greater political power than private sector workers, harming democracy.

A 2011 report says just over 15% of the workforce works for governments, on average (varies greatly by state). This slim segment can speak more freely than than the 85% who lack speech protections (about 8% of private sector workers are unionized and some union contracts have speech protections).

As asked in a previous post, Should some people have a greater right to engage in “free speech” – including hate speech – than others?

Think about the impact this has on public discussion of say, adding a new government run program, expanding and existing government program – or conversely, discussion about reducing an existing government run program. Those who work for the government have more rights to support or not support such policies than do private sector workers.

When speech includes items shared on Facebook and Twitter – items containing speech that can lead to private sector, but not public, workers being fired – the propaganda messaging on social media becomes warped to favor those who work for the public sector.

Among public sector workers, especially at the State level, a majority are both unionized and members of the Democratic Party.

This is particularly true in academic institutions (in sampled institutions, the Democrat to Republican ratio of staff exceeds 10:1) where workers have the greatest free speech rights of all.

Since these workers have greater free speech rights, this suggests more political discourse, such as that shared on social media, is likely to come from and favor positions of public sector Democratic party members.

Social media is therefore an amplifier of the political views of the public sector.

Update

Professor Zeynep Tufekci points out another distinction between private sector and academics in both public and private institutions:

If you go work for the companies, you have nondisclosure agreements. And if you work for Facebook, you’re basically focused on ad targeting. Whereas if you’re in our space, you say, How can we do this better? You’re not trying to make someone money, you’re trying to think about the public good.

Private sector workers are also encumbered by non-disclosure agreements whereas those in academics are not (usually) restricted. This is what tenure is supposed to protect; not vile, hurtful speech.

(At one job I was handed a form to sign. The form said that I could not go to work for anyone in the tech industry for 12 months after working at this firm as a relatively low level, line worker. I refused to sign it noting I was the sole bread winner for my family and could not be unemployed in my career field for a year. Being unemployed for a year would be career suicide as one would be seen as “out of date”. The HR person reached into a folder and handed me a much less restrictive NDA for me to sign (which I did). This highlights the absurdity of these overly restrictive NDAs – they had different ones sitting around and readily available but tried to trick most workers, who likely did not read them, into signing the absurdly restrictive agreements.)

Related: Judge rules that journalists have more rights to access government information than the public.

You may remember the line in Animal Farm: Everyone is equal but some are more equal than others.

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