Opinion: Discriminating employers, your privacy and free speech
Robert Thomas Young
The right of free speech is so important that the founders of the constitution put it as the First Amendment. Yet free speech and privacy is under attack in American culture. I know that half of you are probably reading this while on Facebook, thinking that speech has never been freer. However, I argue that speech has never been so easily communicated and spread, but it is definitely not free.
In the last year, teachers have been fired for Facebook posts, emails, comments to parents and even old jobs. A U.S. Marine faces a possible dishonorable discharge for his contentious remarks on his Facebook page about President Obama.
Famous philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote that people should be allowed to do and say as they please, as long as they don’t cause harm to others. For example, you can shout hate speech, but don’t shout fire in a crowded theatre.
Conversely, Mill gives another caveat to his notion on free speech. You are free to be obnoxious and crude. You can decide not to shower or brush your teeth. However, other people are free to shun and ignore you.
This thought has some merit. It allows individuals to express themselves as long as they don’t harm others, and it allows society — as a group — to deal with eccentrics without curtailing their speech. However, I don’t think that an employer forcing you to login to see your personal Facebook account was what Mill had in mind.
After listening to two chanting racists, who picket soldiers’ funerals, you may wonder why free speech is all that important. Mill has the answer here as well.
Free speech prevents the “tyranny of the majority,” which is what happens if you let the majority rule with no ability for the minority to share ideas. Mill insists that you never know where the next good idea will originate. For instance, slavery was supported by the majority of Americans for quite a while. Without free speech, those that felt slavery was immoral would have never had a chance to express their views. So, how does this principle equate into employers nosing into your personal life? Why should a person be fired for a past job or holding a cigarette in a picture?
The answer is that they shouldn’t! Personal views should not have any impact on the ability to perform most jobs. For example, I can be a socialist or a democrat, politically, while being a computer programmer, teacher or nurse.
The problem is that political parties, the choice to smoke, or having tattoos are not protected classes. This means that employers are FREE to discriminate against you for any of these reasons. Your religion, gender (unless you work at Wal-Mart — wink wink), race and possible disability are protected from discrimination, but that’s about it.
I don’t want to rush to the far side of the libertarian coin and say that anyone can say anything and not have to worry about social consequences, but I also don’t want to say that your past jobs and pictures posted online should be open game for your employers.
Asking about my Facebook pictures or my personal stance on politics during an interview should be as unethical and illegal as asking about my sexuality or race, but it isn’t.
We need to draw a better boundary for what is considered private and what is considered public. Facebook walks that line, as it is both public in the social media sense and private in the sense of photo sharing and sending messages to friends and family. There needs to be a better delineation between what is on the table as it pertains to job functions or requirements and what is personal and has nothing to do with a person’s employment.
I don’t like the idea that racist idiots chant “God hates fags” at soldiers’ funerals, but I can live with that if it means that free speech is maintained for everyone. As much as it may offend or upset some people, I also think that as long as a people perform their jobs and fulfill their duties as employees, their personal lives should have no bearing on hiring or firing.
I would much rather live in a country where I occasionally hear things I don’t like, opposed to one that discriminates and mutes citizens simply because their beliefs, habits and lifestyles don’t conform to the ambiguous moral majority, or rather the multitude of regional and local moral majorities.