Thursday, April 12, 2012

Freedom of speech and employee speech in Guillen case

Many people are talking about Ozzie Guillen’s mere five day suspension as manager of the Miami Marlins for talking to the press about his affection for Fidel Castro.  Some are saying that Guillen has a right to express his political views and should not have been suspended.  But, this isn’t a case of freedom of speech, although there is growing concern about the line between company employee and private lives.

In a recent interview with Time Magazine, Guillen said that he “loves Fidel Castro”.  It is something he expressed a few years ago while working for the White Sox.  It is hard to believe that Time interviewed him because he was just another immigrant from Venezuela that made good.  If that was the case, he would have had wider discretion about his freedom of speech.  Time was interviewing him because he was a major league manager of a baseball team.  In that role, he has to put on his employee face and give the answers that support his team and the sport.  Just as any employee would if being interviewed by the magazine or talking to a customer about the products or services the company sells.

Those that follow the Supreme Court know well that the justices are always looking for the line between the issue they are judging and everything else.  At what point did the defendant cross the line?  Or, if the case that is in front of the court is a violation of constitutional rights, where does the right start and end?  In Guillen’s case, where is the line between his private life and that of manager of the Miami Marlins.

There are other situations around the country that aren’t as well known.  Here in Michigan, a teacher claims she was fired from a charter school because she was helping raise money for the Trayvon Martin family.  In another part of the country, a military man is being drilled out of the service because of his criticism of the current military policy of the military and the administration.  On a more personal level, we have all been tempted to say something at work, but have not for fear it would be something we regret.

The truth is, there isn’t a blanket right to express your personal thoughts whenever you want.  Remember, rights are not absolute.  Employees make a choice to work somewhere even in bad economic times when there are few choices.  Employers, as in the case of Guillen, have broad discretion when it comes to controlling the speech of their employees while on the job.  And, it has nothing to do with the First Amendment.  The only time the line between the freedom of speech and an employer’s time clock becomes blurred is when there is illegal activity or when the employee is clearly not on the clock.

But, what we all must be on guard about is when an employee isn’t on the job or when not representing the company at the time.  Corporate America would love to control our every action to assure that their image is solid.  Most companies, though, realize that it is better to take a softer line when an employee isn’t on the job out of respect for the employee’s privacy rights.  (Remember, there is a right to privacy in our legal system and community.)

Guillen, in my opinion, may end up being fired because of the outrage of the Cuban community in Florida and across the country for his remarks in support of the Cuban dictator.  No matter how good Guillen thinks Castro is, he is still a dictator.  As an employee, speaking as an employee, Guillen should have kept his mouth shut until he was off the clock. 

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