The brouhaha over freedom of speech below reminds me that I never got around to blogging about Bruce Barry’s very interesting book Speechless:The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace (Powells, Amazon) which I read over the summer. I was sent it as a freebie because it has a chapter about blogging in the workplace, but found that I was grabbed by the general discussion of how few rights Americans have at the workplace. This is something that I had known in a general sort of way but hadn’t experienced personally (academics, at least tenure-track academics in good institutions, typically have it a lot better than most), and that was really brought home by Barry’s extended arguments and plethora of real-life illustrations. The book starts by discussing the experience of Lynne Gobbel, an Alabama factory worker.
Gobbel had a John Kerry bumper sticker. Her boss informed her that the owner of the factory, Phil Geddes, had demanded that she remove the sticker or be fired; he also told her “you could either work for him or John Kerry.” Geddes had on a previous occasion inserted a flyer in employee paycheck envelopes pointing out the positive effects that Bush’s policies as president were having on them. “It upset me and made me mad,” said Gobbel, “that he could put a letter in my check expressing his political opinion, but I can’t put something on my car expressing mine.”
Barry emphasizes that this is an unusually blatant example of control of political speech in the workplace (he also makes a damn good case that more subtle forms of control are rife, and that they go in various political directions). But precisely because it is such a stark case, it serves nicely to illustrate the issues at hand. Most libertarians, I suspect, will see this as unfortunate, but as nothing to get too upset about – after all, no-one forced Lynne Gobbel to work for Phil Geddes, and their contractual arrangement could be terminated at any time. Left-liberals and social democrats are likely to see it differently. They’re likely to think that there’s something pretty off about a situation where Phil Geddes can effectively tell his employees how they should vote in leaflets included in their paycheck, while his employees are fired if they engage in much less obtrusive forms of political speech.
More generally, from the latter point of view, countries or US states where people can lose their jobs for expressing certain political opinions are likely, as a result, to be places where people’s effective ability to exercise free speech rights in certain important situations are going to be stunted and diminished. The abstract right to express your support for a political candidate or position isn’t very useful if you think that you’re going to lose your job if you try to exercise it. What’s important here, and to be nourished is exactly the right to effective free speech (which in this example could be protected by proper legislation allowing people only to fire employees for-cause). This is also why I found Andrew Sullivan’s criticism of Chris’s original post so peculiar. If you’re a self-proclaimed Burkean conservative, you are, I would have thought, telling the world that you are much less interested in abstract rights than in the concrete ways that we can and should live together. A vehement hostility to the very notion of ‘effective’ liberty is, to say the least, a decidedly odd position for a Burkean who claims to value free speech to be taking.