Free Speech Is Not Always Free in the Workplace

Ann Twomey

Ann Twomey

Unless you have a union, the fundamental principle of free speech can end at the door of your workplace.  For non-union workers, any form of communication, including bringing legitimate issues to the public, is often met by threats or punishment through harsh and sometimes illegal policies limiting speech.

More and more companies, including healthcare companies, are creating policies that limit their workers’ speech. Sometimes that speech is private between co-workers or friends; sometimes it becomes public, through protest, whistleblowing or social media.  Workplace policies are becoming increasingly restrictive,  though protecting our free speech rights – even our right to complain – should be fundamental. It is particularly vital in health care, since limiting a healthcare professional’s rights to speak up about unsafe condition can have a detrimental impact not only on the worker, but on the patients and quality of services provided.

Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other forms of social media have become the way in which many of us express our opinions, as well as share our family news.  More than two-thirds of Americans use social media sites.   Globally, Twitter has 230 million active users, posting 500 million Tweets a day – while more than 70 % of all USA internet users are on Facebook.

As a result, the conflict between an employer’s attempt to protect its reputation and an employee’s right to speak up is being fought in these very public arenas.  In New Jersey, counties, school districts and private employers have disciplined workers for their use of social media – and have also been sued by their employees for actions taken against their social media use.  There are hundreds of law firms and consultants advertising and interpreting the law on what is and is not allowed within employer social media policies.

Recently, Registered Nurses at Meridian Health leafleted the community, addressed town councils, posted billboards and used social media like Facebook and Twitter to press for safe staffing levels in their workplace contract.  Nurses posted pictures of themselves holding signs with messages like “Nurses Keep Patients Safe’.

The posts didn’t go over well with Meridian managers who told nurses that the posts violated the hospital’s social media policy. Overly broad and unreasonable restrictions on speech such as these policies could have had a chilling effect, stopping nurses from speaking up when they believed patient care is compromised, or when staffing levels are unsafe.

The hospital’s reaction wasn’t unique, but because the nurses’ were unionized, it didn’t end there.   HPAE nurses found that the hospital’s social media policy was filled with language violating nurses’ rights and they filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency that oversees workplace rights.

In a series of recent decisions, the NLRB has found company social media policies unlawful because they interfere with employees’ right to act collectively, which are protected acts under the National Labor Relations Act.

It’s important for workers to know the limits of their rights, and the extent to which their employers will search their personal social media accounts. Many employers continue to attempt limiting social media in an effort to censor postings they just don’t like.   And that should be unacceptable to all of us.

As part of their contract settlement, Meridian Health agreed to bargain with HPAE over the social media policy so that it no longer violates employee rights.  Without their union, both the voice of nurses and of patients would have been unprotected.

Nurses and healthcare workers know it is essential to protect the privacy rights of their patients in their communications, and to refrain from harmful or discriminatory speech.  They don’t want to harm their employers – but they do want solutions to unsafe staffing levels, or unsafe working conditions.

Instead of banning speech, I suggest hospitals listen to their nurses and health professionals, and seek solutions to the problems they raise.

Ann Twomey is president of NJ’s largest union of nurses and healthcare workers, with 12,000 members in hospitals, nursing homes, home care, university research and blood banks.  http://www.hpae.org

Free Speech Is Not Always Free in the Workplace