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Duck Dynasty Lesson: When Free Speech Can Cost You Your Job

By Hal M. Bundrick

NEW YORK (MainStreet) Free speech in America allows you to speak your mind and get fired for it. The most recent high-profile example involves Phil Robertson, the crusty patriarch of the Louisiana-based "Duck Dynasty" reality TV family. Robertson's Bible-inspired views on homosexuality have cost him his role on one of the most popular shows on cable television.

Political discussions at work, "likes" on Facebook, blog posts and opinionated tweets have all gotten people fired. While the First Amendment protects your right to speak your mind, it does not prevent you from being fired for doing so.

Bruce Barry, a professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University and author of Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace (Berrett-Koehler, 2007), says the restriction of free speech in the workplace is "weakening the very fabric" of civic discourse.

"There are excessive and needless restrictions on American employees, and that matters for civil society and democracy," Barry says in a Vanderbilt profile. "If people are worried that their involvement in a community or cause or political campaign might affect their careers, then I argue this has a chilling effect on them in their role as citizens."

His book cites extreme examples of the job ramifications involving free speech, including an Alabama woman who was fired for having a John Kerry bumper sticker on her car.

"Every time someone gets fired for blogging, or bumper stickers or letters to the editor, I worry about its chilling effect, the message it sends that your speech can get you in trouble even when it's relatively harmless," Barry says. "Of course, employers need not tolerate abusive or harsh or insulting speech. The problem I see is that employment lawyers tell managers to go too far, to avoid any risk of any lawsuits by allowing no speech that could be construed by someone as harassing, and that creates a collision between harassment laws that seek to avoid inflicting a hostile environment, and free speech."

Don Lemon, a CNN anchor and former Louisiana resident, says Robertson from "Duck Dynasty" should not be fired for his comments and for reasons beyond simply free speech.

"While I think his comments are reprehensible, disgusting, racist, homophobic, hateful and just plain old ignorant, I believe in his right to say it, and I don't think he should be fired," Lemon writes on blackamericaweb.com. "I think ignorance like his should be revealed if only for the sake of holding up a big, country-wide mirror so that he and others like him can see themselves for exactly who they are."

Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet

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