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Workplace Freedom Of Speech

On Behalf of | Mar 2, 2011 | Employment Law

Employees of private employers may legitimately lose their job for exercising what they believe is their free speech at the work place. This point was illustrated in the New Hampshire federal court decision of John R. Griffin, Jr. v. Margaret Garrison. In that case, Griffin filed a lawsuit against Garrison as a New Hampshire Department of Employment Security employee in that he was angry that she determined his unemployment benefits should be denied, even though her initial determination was over ruled by the Department and Griffin received the sought-after unemployment benefits. Griffin was employed at Speare Memorial Hospital as a radiology technician from May 30, 2003 until May 19, 2009 when the Hospital fired him for comments to a patient about President Obama, Manchester being Obamaland, and that he was stocking up on food, artillery, bullets, and ammo in case something happened. Griffin had been warned in the past and, in fact had received two suspensions without pay, for similar inappropriate and nonprofessional comments he had made. The comments attributed to Griffin could not be restricted by the government yet private employers can restrict such comments in the work place.

While in the Griffin v. Garrison 14-page decision, the Court discussed in detail why a successful claim by Griffin could not be raised against state employee Garrison, the following quote from the Court is the most useful to both private employers and employees alike: “Griffin believes the hospital terminated his employment as a consequence of his having engaged in protected ‘political speech’ (i.e., his comments about “Obamaland” and stocking up on food, weapons, and ammunition). Plainly, he has no First Amendment claim against the hospital, since it was not acting under color of state law when it discharged him.” Private employees should take heed that espousing your political views while at work can result in adverse employment action. Notwithstanding the above, of course, private employers should exercise discretion in firing employees for political speech. However, in situations described in the Griffin v. Garrison case where Griffin as a radiology technician decided to share his views with patients, after having been suspended in the past for similar conduct, the Hospital was more than justified to fire Griffin.

J. Daniel Marr is a Director and Shareholder at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. His legal practice includes counseling businesses and individuals on a variety of legal issues and advocating on their behalf. Attorney Marr is licensed and practices in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Attorney Marr can be reached at [email protected].