Free speech does not mean protection from getting fired for offensive tweets


Rex Huppke - Chicago Tribune



As you may have noticed, we’re experiencing what might politely be called a tumultuous moment in our nation’s politics and that has people feeling angry, defensive, outraged, elated and, in some cases, mean-spiritedly cocky.

There was a time when turmoil of this sort might not have mattered as much in the working world, back when the primary means of spouting a political opinion was via mouth. That would often temper opinion-spouting, as face-to-face debates tend to be more civil.

But now we have social media and, as evidenced by a number of stories over the past week, political opinions or jokes can easily get out of hand and damage careers.

I’ll get to those examples in a moment, but first let me say this: Everyone has the right to say, tweet or blog what they want. That’s freedom of speech. But freedom of speech is often mistaken for freedom from consequences, and working people are guaranteed no such thing.

The legal parameters get murky, but if you’re posting comments that are racist, sexist, xenophobic, bigoted or just plain vile and somebody connects you to your company or organization, then you are, by association, making that company or organization look bad. And you may well find yourself out of a job.

To which I say, “Good.” Given the level of vitriol and hideous garbage that gets spewed online these days, I’m in favor of companies taking stronger steps to show that words come with consequences. I don’t mean managers should be policing workers’ social media accounts, but if an employee is reported for trolling people online or engaging in political rants that go far beyond the norms of civil discourse, that person’s company should make clear what it considers acceptable.

Again, that’s not restricting freedom of speech. You have a right to free speech, but you don’t have a right to a job that will tolerate you posting material that could damage a company’s reputation or workplace morale.

Let’s review some related news that has popped up in the wake of President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

A suburban Chicago school board member resigned after posting a string of wildly sexist tweets regarding the women’s marches in Washington, D.C., and across the country. One tweet read: “Most of these vagina screechers didn’t vote, but they mean business. Riiiiiiiight. What a farce.”

Other tweets referred to marching women as a “Procession of Palpable Penis Envy” and one read: “Alas, the 300 million pound Women March provides a strong argument for doing away with women’s suffrage.”

The author of these tweets, Dathan Paterno, is founder and clinical director of Park Ridge Psychological Services, which was subsequently eviscerated on Yelp by people who were rightly offended and shocked that a mental health professional would spout off in such a way.

In Texas, a principal is in trouble with her school district after writing a Facebook post calling Trump a “moron” and describing his Cabinet as being made up of “non-qualified white males.”

After parents complained about the post, district officials launched an investigation to determine whether Diaka Carter, who is black, may have violated the district’s social media policy.

A writer for “Saturday Night Live,” Katie Rich, was suspended from the show after sending out a tweet making a joke about Trump’s 10-year-old son, Barron. Rich wrote that “Barron will be this country’s first homeschool shooter.”

She was suspended indefinitely and issued an apology.

Nebraska state Sen. Bill Kintner stepped down this week following outrage over a tweet he shared relating to the women’s marches. (He was already in hot water for a previous cybersex scandal.)

Kintner retweeted someone else’s tweet that made light of sexual assault, suggesting the appearance of women marching at the protest events would keep them “safe.”

He was one of several male Republican lawmakers across the country who sent inappropriate tweets and Facebook posts relating to the marches. They apparently don’t understand that social media isn’t private, and that there’s such a thing as basic human decency.

I think one of the problems we have is that there are working people who get paid to express opinions. I’m one of them, but even with this job I have to be careful to not let my opinions or jokes or rants go too far.

And then there are working people who get paid to do other things. But because of social media and the internet in general, everyone is tempted to broadcast an opinion. And many of those people don’t understand that there is a place called “too far.”

When you’re a working person or a representative of any organization and you reach “too far,” the road splits in two.

One way is unfettered freedom of speech, and you can take that road as far you want to go.

The other way is continued employment, and that road lets you speak your mind within reason while still getting a paycheck.

You can map your own route. But if I’m giving directions, I’ll point you toward that second road every time.

Rex Huppke

Chicago Tribune

Rex Huppke is a columnist with the Chicago Tribune. Readers may email him at rhuppke@chicagotribune.com.

Rex Huppke is a columnist with the Chicago Tribune. Readers may email him at rhuppke@chicagotribune.com.