Election season is here and the evidence can be viewed all around an employer’s campus: from bumper stickers on the cars in the parking lots; buttons festooned to employees; even screen savers on company computers; now more than ever broadcasting your support is easy. However, with that support may come problems for the workplace.
Connecticut’s free-speech statute Conn. Gen. Stat. §31-51q protects an employee (acting in his or her private citizen capacity and not as an agent of the employer) from discharge or discipline for engaging in speech that would be protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution or Sections 3, 4 or 14 of the Connecticut State Constitution. This includes what is called “political speech.” Stated differently, an employee who voices support (such as campaigns for or speaks positively/negatively about a particular candidate) may not suffer any reprisal from the employer merely because the employer disagrees with that particular political philosophy. This includes discipline (demotions, write-ups, suspensions etc.) and discharge based on that speech.
However, much like other issues concerning free speech rights, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 31-51q tapers the rights of employees from engaging in speech that “substantially and materially interferes with the employee’s bona fide job performance or the working relationship between the employee and the employer.” Thus, while an employee may show support toward a particular candidate, that support cannot disrupt the business operations of the employer. In other words, if the conduct of the employee is consuming so much of his or her working time; leading to political fights with other employees; and/or resulting in substandard work product or harm to business relationships, discipline is appropriate.
Given the nuances of Conn. Gen. Stat. § 31-51q and free speech laws in particular, it is always a good idea to consult with an attorney well versed in free speech rights in the workplace. Our attorneys have handled these issues for both public and private employers and are familiar with this changing area of the law.