Thursday, August 10, 2017

Free Speech is not Free!

First off a quote from the Bill of Rights, sorta stage setting:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." (U.S. Constitution: First Amendment)
Recently this has come under some discussion concerning the freedom of speech for a former Google Engineer.  My question is simple: "Did Google firing the engineer who wrote an internal memo concerning a why women aren't as prevalent in the IT workplace as men an issue of Free Speech?"  I'm not going to address the contents of his memo, that's being done all over the Internet.  I am interested in how it ties to free speech.

Here's a post that drove me to consider this topic today, "Another Google Nail in Liberty's Coffin", it's from the World Net Daily, which is not one of the most objective sources for news.  The article never gets around to considering the responsibilities of free speech, which tells me that the author may not understand those responsibilities.

I have always been taught that 'Free Speech' isn't free from consequences.  The classic example of walking into a theater and yelling "Fire!".  There had better be a real fire or you can be held responsible for the ensuing panic of the people trying to leave the theater.  Any injuries or property damage may well wind you in court.  More close to home, my Dad once told me that there are certain words and phrases that might be legal to say, but if you say them in front of your Mother, you will probably live to regret it!  Just because you might be legally free, doesn't absolve you of the potential consequences of your words.  I think I fully understood this the first time I heard one of my kids telling a dirty joke :-)

So, was the Google Engineer's 'free speech' violated by Google terminating his employment?  

First one technicality, note the First Amendment above, is Google a government entity?  No!  Did Congress make a law preventing the engineer from writing his 10 page paper?  No!  Does the engineer have the right to express his opinion?  Yes, which he did!  No one legally could stop him from expressing himself on the topic.  It may not have even occurred to his employer that it might be necessary.

Now the tough question, is the right of free speech devoid of any consequences?  Here is the lesson that I think people forget.  No, the right to free speech, or freedom of expression as it is more often expressed, does not absolve you of the potential consequences.  When we exercise our rights, we also have responsibilities that go along with them.

Does Google have a right to expect certain behaviors from its employees?  Do they have the right of hiring and firing employees?  Internally the memo caused a number of reactions, including people saying they had no wish to work with that particular engineer, especially if his attitudes about women are the things he posted.

There's where you have to consider the responsibilities of free speech, not just the lofty idealistic version.  Freedom of expression is not the idea that people are free to say whatever they want, whenever they want, and wherever they want.  Why is that so hard to understand?  Should Google have kept the engineer despite of his post?  Should they force people to work with him?  Such opinions have an impact on working relationships!  Google, as a business entity, does have the right to employ who they wish and the right to terminate employees for a number of perfectly legitimate reasons.

If I have a negative opinion of the company I work for, or some of the people I work with, I have the right to that opinion.  Once I utter that opinion aloud, or in a post, I am truly exercising my right to free expression.  However that freedom doesn't shield me from the consequences of my words.  If my company, or co-workers, have a negative reaction to my words, there will be repercussions, and more than likely end my relationship with the company -- either voluntarily or involuntarily.  That's how life works!  Freedom of Expression doesn't shield me from saying something that could have negative consequences and shouldn't be used in that fashion.

It's like a prejudice.  Is it legal to have prejudices?  How can you legislate the thoughts in someone's head?  No one can tell you what to think.  But when those prejudices are expressed in words or deeds, that's when the repercussions start.  There are legal issues as well as personal ones.  Supposed I called one of my co-workers by some racial or ethnic slur.  Should the idea of 'free speech' be used to protect not only my employment but also my ass when it gets kicked?

No, by deliberately using words designed to harm others is not an example of free speech, but rather stupid speech.  Yes, I might win a lawsuit for assault and battery, but the odds of that are 50-50.  The judge might rule that my words caused the problem in the first place and was inciting the violence that put me in the hospital.  Even if the judge rules for me, how much fun will I be having from said hospital bed?  I'm pretty sure my job will have evaporated once I do get released from the hospital.

I've said it before, and I will keep saying and believing it.  Freedom of Expression is not a license to be an idiot, but a freedom that comes with not only responsibilities, but in exercising that freedom, it comes with an acceptance of the potential consequences.  Hopefully the Google engineer understood that.  He expressed a point of view that put a wall between himself and many of his fellow employees.

Google needed to make a decision.  I saw there were several possibilities.  He could have been ignored, fired, or promoted.  Ignoring him would have been a tacit form of approval.  That would have been perilous for the working environment at Google.  Promotion would have been a disaster, except maybe in the more conservative circles who would see it as some sort of validation, much like a certain hamster-haired serial lying misogynist's election.  I don't think Google had much choice.  The 10 page manifesto listed a number of things that were certainly against the policies of the company, the impact on the work environment, I think may have been the metaphorical straw,  Google will catch some hell for their decision, but I still do not see their action as a free speech issue.

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