Tuesday, March 20, 2007

What's offensive? Limiting rights is

Via Josh Rosenau we find this little bit of news from Kansas.
A legislative staffer who put an anti-war bumper sticker with a profanity on her car and parked it in the Statehouse garage upset one lawmaker and had the governor and others debating the limits of free speech.


The red bumper sticker contains only two words in white — the f-word followed by “war.”


The complaint about the sticker came from House Majority Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, a former Marine. He said the language offended him.

“We have a lot of kids coming out of this building every day, and I don’t think it’s appropriate,” Merrick said.

I wonder what it was about the message that offended former Marine Ray Merrick. Was it the profanity or was it the overall message that massed numbers of people trying to kill each other over abstract concepts might be less than nifty. Would he have objected to a bumper sticker that said "I heart war" or one that had the f-word followed by “pacifism”?

There is a serious, free speech issue here and some kind of legal determination on this is long overdue. Does an employer (whether government or civilian) have any business telling their employees what opinions they may express on their personal cars. Each of the last few election cycles has come with stories of people being fired or punished for their bumper stickers.

Employers have always had trouble letting go of control over their workers at the end of their shift or at the door of the workplace. In recent years, many employers have tried to exercise control over their employee's health habits, using the cost of insurance as a justification. I don't think we'll ever get a one hundred percent clear legal determination over the limits of an employer's rights to interfere with their employees' private lives, or just what constitutes "private" in these cases, but free speech should be a fairly simple issue.

Since this touches on three sore points for me -- free speech, privacy, and bullying bosses -- it should be no surprise to my readers to find that I think the employers should take a flying leap. The only limits on an employee's rights either should come from the community at large (such as a general ban on profanity in public) or be justified by a legitimate business interest (a company has a legitimate interest in not providing free parking to an employee whose car carries a sticker that has the f-word followed by the company name).

Notice the restriction I put on enforcement by the company. I don't think they have the right tell the employee not to display that bumper sticker anywhere, but I do think they have the right to deny privileges such as parking on company property for that vehicle. I have a second restriction in mind with that phrasing. Limitation of employee privileges should be justified by a legitimate business interest. Preventing an employee from using the company parking lot to advertise against the company is legitimate, but preventing an employee from using the company parking lot to express an opinion that the employer or even the community at large disagrees with is not. Employers might claim that giving parking space to that opinion implies endorsement of that opinion (this is the argument most likely to come from government), but this argument doesn't pass the smell test. Does anyone actually think that the public is so naive that they believe a company endorses the opinions of every bumper sticker on every private car (not company vehicles) in their parking lot? If I see a bumper sticker at the Ballard farmer's market that says "Disco Roolz" I do not assume that the city of Seattle or the farmers of western Washington (or anyone in their right mind) endorses that opinion. I assume that one poor creature of limited taste managed pass the drivers' test and to pull together enough money to buy a used car.

Why hasn't this been decided by the courts?

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