Juli Briskman was on her own time, riding her bicycle, when President Trump’s motorcade drove by. She expressed her personal feelings with a middle finger salute, not realizing that a news reporter had captured her gesture on camera.
She abruptly lost her job after the photo went viral on social media. Her employer, a government contracting firm, feared the Trump administration would retaliate by withholding or not renewing contracts. She has sued for wrongful termination.
Did her employer’s action violate her rights?
Briskman was forced to resign in November 2017. She has now filed a lawsuit against her employer, citing violation of her civil rights. There are limits on free speech in the workplace. But she wasn’t in the workplace. When she “flipped the bird” at the president and his motorcade, she was doing so as a private citizen.
Giving someone the finger, however uncouth it may seem, is protected speech under the First Amendment. Employers do have some leeway to discipline or fire workers if they badmouth the company or if their personal conduct violates a corporate policy.
Briskman is claiming that she was fired as a sacrificial lamb. Her employer, Akima, has government contracts. The company has not claimed that her speech violated policy or offended her co-workers. Rather, she contends the company terminated her to avoid the wrath of the White House. The stated reason for her forced resignation was that the company could lose out on lucrative contracts if she were retained. In a nutshell, her lawsuit claims that the company retaliated against her before the administration could retaliate against the company.
Can an employer pre-emptively terminate a worker for what might happen?
Ms. Briskman would likely still have her job if she had given the finger to anyone other than the president of the United States. And perhaps if it had been any other president. Maybe management was pressured by the White House through back channels. Maybe they just weren’t taking any chances.
The question for the court, or a jury, will be whether Akima was within its rights to take adverse employment action against an employee for (a) private speech that (b) could potentially but not necessarily affect its future contracts.
“Working for a company that does business with the federal government should never limit your ability to criticize that government in your private time,” Briskman has stated.
This unsettled legal issue will likely come up again
In the age of social media, clashes between free speech and employment are increasingly common. What you post on Facebook or Instagram on your free time may be visible to your bosses. Anyone with a cellphone can capture your strong words or rude gestures and make you suddenly (in)famous on the internet.
It will be interesting to see where this lawsuit goes. Do you think political speech or personal opinions while you are off duty should be protected? Or should employers be able to fire workers for free speech that results in backlash against the company or agency?