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Government orders Google not to restrict employees' free speech

Key Points
  • The National Labor Relations Board has ordered Google to remind employees that it's within their rights to discuss political and workplace issues inside the company.
  • The settlement relates to employee complaints that the company restricts free speech.
  • Google has faced turmoil inside the company about what the limits of free speech should be.
An employee passes the Google logo.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images

The National Labor Relations Board has ordered Google to remind employees that it's within their rights to openly debate political and workplace issues, the Wall Street Journal first reported.

The action came as a result of federal regulators reaching an agreement on a proposed settlement on employee complaints that the company restricts free speech, a Google spokesperson said. The settlement, which was approved by an agency director this week, follows Google's issuing of revised community guidelines that are meant to crack down on what employees can say inside the company.

Last month, Google released a new set of community guidelines that discourage employees from talking about politics on Google's internal mailing lists in forums. The rules also bar employees from making statements that "insult, demean or humiliate" other employees or Google's extended extended workforce.

One complaint was filed by ex-Google engineer Kevin Cernekee, who claims he was fired for expressing conservative views. Google says that Cernekee was fired for violating multiple company policies, including using a personal device to download company documents. In his complaint, Cernekee asked to be reinstated at the company, but the settlement terms don't guarantee that, according to the Journal.

A second complaint was submitted by a current Google employee who claims he was punished over posting negative opinions about a top Google executive on Facebook, the Journal said.

A Google spokesperson denied that the settlement deals with political speech inside the company.

"We have agreed to a proposed settlement with the NLRB of Mr. Cernekee's complaint," a Google spokesperson said in a statement. "Under that settlement, we have agreed to post a notice to our employees reminding them of their rights under the National Labor Relations Act. There is absolutely no mention of political activity in the proposed settlement, and the updates we made to our Community Guidelines are completely unrelated and unaffected."

The notice will remind employees of changes that were made to Google's employee communications policy in 2016 and 2017. The policies clarify that employees have the right to speak up about workplace issues.

Representatives from the NLRB weren't immediately available for comment.

Google has historically fostered a culture of free speech and debate inside the company, with employees often getting into heated conversations about political and social issues. This has led to extensive debates inside the company about what the limits of free speech should be. Many current and former Google employees have spoken out publicly about the issue.

Read the full story in The Wall Street Journal.

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