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Your Freedom of Speech Ends Where Your Paycheck Begins

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Freedom of Speech, by [togr] at FlickrDo you have freedom of speech? Of course you do! And can you exercise it? Of course you can! But does that mean you can’t be fired from your job? Sorry, no.

Two sackings over the Easter weekend, which I normally would barely have noticed but for the gnashing of teeth from various bloggers and Twitterati. Did these two men deserve to lose their jobs? A quick look at the cases:

First up was US Marine Gary Stein, who had previously been associated with a Facebook page called the Armed Forces Tea Party. A Marine Corps review board on Saturday recommended that he be given a “less than honourable” discharge for postings he had made, one of which apparently said that he would refuse to obey orders from Barack Obama. US Marines take an oath when they enlist, promising to obey their commander-in-chief, who just happens to be the President of the United States. Under the circumstances, the Marine Corps review board decided that Stein’s postings made him…. possibly not the best team player, and so they decided to cut him loose.

Next, fearless iconoclast/professional troll (pick your political poison) John Derbyshire found himself booted from the National Review. From the looks of things, he embarassed his fellow writers there so much that he couldn’t be kept on. His downfall began with an article he wrote elsewhere, but as a growing backlash repeatedly referred to him as “a National Review writer”, they had to take action. Fellow writers disowned his article on Twitter, and on Sunday, the National Review editor Rich Lowry confirmed that Derbyshire had been jettisoned, describing the offending article as “so outlandish it constitutes a kind of letter of resignation. ”

Cue cries of “Freedom of speech! First Amendment!” echoing around the internet, and those are just the more measured reactions. On the wilder fringes of the blogosphere, you can probably find someone trying to tie these cases to a Marxist conspiracy, the Illuminati and the coming Rapture.

So who is right? That’s for the lawyers to decide (it’s  always for the lawyers to decide). I am not a lawyer, but I would probably want to be paid upfront before taking on either of Gary Stein or John Derbyshire as a client in a case of unfair dismissal.

When you sign up to the military, you sign certain rights away, and one of those is being able to flap your gums whenever you feel like it, in whatever context you like. Don’t get me wrong: you still have freedom of speech, it’s just constrained. There are certain things you can’t say in uniform, or as a representative of the military. Them’s the rules, and you’re expected to follow them. If you don’t, there’s inevitably going to be consequences. Gary Stein does have lawyers and free speech advocates who are working on his behalf, so this one could run and run. Make extra popcorn!

John Derbyshire is equally easy, in my view. As a high-profile National Review writer, when his article generated such controversy, it reflected badly on his main employer. Bringing the bosses into disrepute? That’s grounds for dismissal, especially if you tack on public shunning by colleagues, and this not being your first ride on the controversy carousel. Derbyshire will probably be fine; he’s an established writer with a body of work behind him. I’m sure he’ll pop up somewhere soon enough.

The overall message, however, is this: when you are dependent on somebody else for your income, they will probably have a number of expectations about what you need to do to get that money. Doing what you are told (Stein) and not making your boss look bad (Derbyshire) are probably pretty high on the list of obligations. So, before firing off a quick blog post bemoaning your HR department, or sending a tweet about the capaciousness of a workmate’s bottom, stop. Think. Are you setting yourself up to lose your job?

[Image by [togr]]


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