Yes, your boss can fire you for being a white supremacist

Joshua Roberts | Reuters

After the Twitter account @YesYoureRacist began exposing and shaming attendees of Saturday's violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, one man was reported to have been fired from his job.

His former employer, Berkeley-based hot dog vendor Top Dog, later announced that he resigned, but the incident begs the question: Can your political speech get you lawfully fired?

Oftentimes, it can. "Private employers can fire you at will," Lata Nott, executive director of the Newseum Institute's First Amendment Center, tells CNBC Make It, as long as their reasoning does not infringe upon your civil rights. Title VII protects your age, national origin, race, ethnic background, gender, religious beliefs and pregnancy status from discrimination.

But it's not always so clear. Take the case of James Damore, the software engineer fired by Google because of his controversial diversity manifesto. Damore may have been partially protected by federal labor law — it's illegal for employers to punish employees for taking "concerted action" to improve working conditions, something Damore could argue he was doing.

Neo Nazis, Alt-Right, and White Supremacists encircle and chant at counter protestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 11, 2017.
Samuel Corum | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

But because the memo was interpreted as sexual harassment, which violates Title VII and Google's code of conduct, Damore's protection was trumped.

In typical cases, if the boss doesn't like you, she has the power to fire you. While such a dynamic allows companies to reprimand employees who spend their weekends espousing hate, it also has consequences. During the Second Red Scare, for instance, Joseph McCarthy led a paranoid movement to remove communist sympathizers from the workforce. Even today, an employer can still fire someone for quietly endorsing socialism.

Unions offer employees extra measures of protection by providing contracts that demand that employers provide "just cause" before terminating their members. And public employees are typically even safer, says Nott. The government cannot easily fire an employee because of their political speech — that would mean the government is suppressing what you say and would violate the First Amendment.

But government employees don't enjoy total impunity.

"There have been police who have been fired for posting racist things on social media," says Nott.

In these instances, she explains, the officers raised First Amendment claims, but the government successfully rebutted that because the officers worked in a racially diverse community, their online posts made it harder for them to do their job and harder for the government to do its job.

This is what Malcolm Gladwell learned from being fired two months into a job
This is what Malcolm Gladwell learned from being fired two months into a job

A comparable incident occurred just this week, when a Texas middle school fired its assistant principal, Eric Hauser, after he published a children's book featuring the "popular white nationalist symbol," Pepe the Frog.

According to The Washington Post, the school district Superintendent Jamie Wilson released a statement encouraging free-thought and open expression, but said, "When these ideas interrupt the ability to learn, work or create divisiveness each of us is held accountable."

In other words, because the assistant principal's actions impeded the mission of the institution, Superintendent Wilson had grounds to fire him. It seems, then, in both public and private spheres, employees can be held accountable for their political speech.

As Gillian B. White points out in The Atlantic, the events in Charlottesville seem to reflect a disturbing trend in which white nationalists feel increasingly at ease openly expressing themselves, regardless of potential consequences.

"The hoods may be off," she writes, "but the torchbearers may not have jobs to come back to on Monday."

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