By Kaitlyn D’Onofrio
The acts of violence at the hands of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., have raised questions about the workplace: is it okay to fire employees who identify as bigots?
According to experts, the answer is yes.
The question rose to prominence following the rumor that a man who participated in last weekend’s rally was fired from his job — a claim that has since been proven false. According to reports Cole White, who worked at Top Dog, a hot dog stand in Berkeley, Calif., was fired after he was identified as a rally-goer by a Twitter account called @YesYoureRacist.
— Yes, You’re Racist (@YesYoureRacist) August 13, 2017
White is no longer employed with Top Dog, but according to the company he left voluntarily.
“There have been reports that he was terminated. Those reports are false. There have been reports that top dog knowingly employs racists and promotes racist theology. That too is false,” the company said in a statement, in part, to KRON 4.
“We do respect our employees’ right to their opinions. They are free to make their own choices but must accept the responsibilities of those choices,” Top Dog also said.
But would Top Dog have been in good legal standing to fire White? Possibly.
According to an article from law firm Fox Rothschild, “Generally speaking, the First Amendment protects speech from government action. Similarly, its right to free assembly is a right to be free from government interference. It simply does not apply to private employers.”
More specifically, though, this depends on state regulations as well as individual employee contracts. According to Workplace Fairness, “Only a mere handful of states (California, New York, and Washington, DC) have laws specifically making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of an employee’s political activity or affiliation, while two more states (Colorado and North Dakota) prohibit discrimination on the basis of ‘lawful conduct outside of work.’” Some individual cities have their own provisions as well.
However, this also depends on the employer. Workers were fired for partaking in the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011. And, as noted by historian Walter Greason, “Historically it’s more dangerous as an employee to be associated with racial justice and the NAACP, than it was to be affiliated with the KKK.”
Google faced this dilemma recently. The tech giant chose to terminate former engineer James Damore, who penned a misogynist memo claiming that women are biologically different than men and therefore are less equipped to be leaders or work in tech roles. The firing sparked a debate on whether or not Google had a right to fire Damore for expressing his views.