There was the Denver doctor who called Michelle Obama a “monkey face” and accused the first lady of using “poor ebonic English.” Just weeks earlier, the head of a West Virginia nonprofit compared Obama to “an ape in heels.”
The racist rants, made on Facebook following a historically divisive election, sparked instant public outrage and demands that the women be fired. The doctor agreed to resign. But the nonprofit director threatened to sue; after a month-long suspension, she will return to work just before Christmas.
The cases illustrate the minefield employers are navigating amid a political climate in which racist language and views have been unleashed. While such sentiments have always existed, many Americans fear the hatred has been normalized, even legitimized, by Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric.
As a candidate, Trump advocated for the profiling of Muslims, said many undocumented Mexican immigrants are rapists, insinuated that black citizens were guilty of voter fraud, and, despite having condemned the views of white supremacists, nevertheless re-tweeted them on multiple occasions.
Following his election, the Ku Klux Klan held a celebration rally in North Carolina. And white nationalists gathered in Washington for a conference during which they hailed Trump’s victory with a Nazi salute.
So what is the line between free speech and hate speech — especially when one’s public and private lives blur in the free-wheeling spaces of social media, where it has become the norm to share private thoughts in a public forum? Can one get fired for retweeting the president-elect? Or being photographed at a white supremacist gathering?
“The First Amendment does not protect employees of private companies,” said John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a legal organization focused on defending civil liberties. “If the employer does not like the speech of the employee or who the employee associates with, the employer can get rid of them.”
However, some states do extend First Amendment protections to private employees to engage in political speech. Illinois law bars employers from keeping a record of their employees' political activities outside of work. Washington prohibits employers from discriminating against workers for supporting any political candidate or ballot proposition.
Public employees enjoy even greater speech protections, but must still weigh their rights against their employers’ interests.
In most states, though, private employers legally have the right to police employees’ behavior off hours. They may have an incentive to do so: protecting their brands and reputations. Companies that fail to swiftly discipline or publicly condemn an employee’s racist rhetoric face the threat of public backlash and boycotts.
“You might hear some more bravado coming out of the White House, but the underlying laws haven’t changed,” said Daniel Schwartz, an employment law partner at Shipman & Goodwin LLP who publishes the Connecticut Employment Law Blog. “There isn’t a First Amendment right to be a racist.”
Over the summer, for instance, Bank of America quickly fired an employee who had gone on a Facebook rant saying, “F---ing n----s go back to Africa.” A spokesman told New York Daily News that the bank had received thousands of social media comments and phone calls about the racist Facebook post. Some customers had threatened to close their accounts.
Not even the president-elect is immune. LeBron James and several of his teammates chose not to stay at their team hotel, Trump SoHo, when the Cleveland Cavaliers recently played the New York Knicks.
There’s even a tumblr devoted to getting people fired for making racists comments. The site posts screenshots of offensive social media statements and where the person works. A human resources manager at Akron Children’s Hospital was shamed on the site for posting the comment “monkeys feeding monkeys to the monkeys” beneath a video of a gorilla dragging an African American child who fell into the enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo.
Companies also want to guard themselves against being sued for failing to protect employees from harassment if a co-worker’s racist speech, even online, creates a hostile work environment, said Jeannette Cox, a law professor at the University of Dayton whose research focuses on employment discrimination.
“Everybody is more on edge,” Cox said. “It’s not just about avoiding civil rights liabilities, it’s also good business practice to not alienate coworkers and customers.”
But civil liberty groups and employment lawyers caution companies against jumping to stifle speech and debate, including views that most would find abhorrent. Some people can be reasoned with, and even change. And because the slope can be slippery between provocative speech and hate speech, employers may end up facing accusations of discrimination if responses to such comments are inconsistent.
“It’s a growing issue, and employers are having trouble knowing how to deal with it,” Whitehead said. “You can always come slamming down on people. That’s the easy way. The hard way is to try to make people better.”
Bruce Barry, a professor of management and sociology at Vanderbilt University, said “employers sometimes have too much of a hair trigger for disapproval.”
“Let’s face it, a lot of racist speech is subtle, a dog whistle. It’s hinting,” said Barry, who wrote the book “Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace.” “People often disagree about whether something is a racist or sexist statement, and most employers don’t want to fight those tricky battles.”