Jill Filipovic says the Trump critic was expressing her personal opinion, not representing her company
If that's why she was fired, should not have lost her job as a result, Filipovic says
Juli Briskman was taking a bike ride when President Donald Trump’s motorcade drove by. She did what drivers and bikers often do when something pisses them off on the road: She flipped the motorcade the bird.
No biggie, right? Until a photo of her giving the finger went viral. Briskman identified herself and posted the photo to her own social media accounts, and this week, her employer fired her. The reason they gave her, Briskman says, was that she violated their social media policy.
If that’s why Briskman was fired, it sets a frightening precedent. Yes, employees who visibly identify themselves with a company on social media should be careful not to cross major lines: Don’t harass people, don’t post bigoted and discriminatory content, don’t engage in behavior that by definition makes you a hostile force in the workplace (like, say, going to a Nazi rally). Twitter would probably be a better place if professional consequences for harassment and bigotry were more common.
But there’s a difference between the kind of behavior that impacts your day job and that which is simply political speech. A white supremacist, for example, may be engaging in political speech by spending their Sunday at a neo-Nazi rally, but they are also a liability as an employee. They are going to discount the intelligence, expertise and authority of any nonwhite boss or manager. If they are in charge of any other employees who aren’t white they are going to be less likely to promote those employees and pay them fairly.
That’s wrong because it’s wrong, but it also undercuts a workplace’s general ability to function, and a company’s interest in having the best people for the job, regardless of color. And, of course, they are a discrimination lawsuit waiting to happen.
None of that is at issue with Briskman. She’s not a Trump fan; neither is more than half the country. She threw up a middle finger in her recreational time and posted a photo of it; there’s nothing to suggest she would, for example, refuse to work with Trump supporters or refuse to serve white men on the suspicion they voted for Trump (this sets her apart, notably, from the many conservatives the Republican Party would like to allow to do just that – but to gay men and lesbians, women who use birth control, Muslims, or anyone else who offends their religious beliefs).
Expressing political beliefs – even beliefs your boss doesn’t like, even political beliefs shared using strong language – and conveying them on your own time (even crudely), should not be a firing offense.
This extends to conservatives, too, obviously. A man flipped off Obama’s motorcade in 2015 and the response was – well, nothing, because it’s not a big deal and no one cared. As it should be.
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If Briskman had flipped Trump off in the course of her employment, that could be a terminable offense. Ditto if she used social media (especially social media linked to her work) to post racist memes or threaten the President’s life.
But being fired for rudely opposing the President has a dangerous chilling effect. Employees must be allowed to have lives outside the office, and must be allowed to express even unpopular beliefs, especially if those beliefs don’t influence their work. Over the past several months, free speech on college campuses has become an unlikely right-wing cause, with conservatives insisting that far-right speakers are often unfairly shut down or stifled. This is a good test: How far does their commitment to free speech actually go?