Waitress' free speech rights violated

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The rise of online social networks is provoking controversies over free speech that U.S. courts should address as soon as possible. One of the more egregious violations of a social network user’s free speech rights we’ve heard of happened here in Charlotte.  Ashley Johnson, a 22-year-old waitress at Brixx Uptown, had to work late recently when a couple who was having lunch stayed for three hours and then stiffed her with a crappy $5 tip for her trouble. (For the restaurant-clueless, note that if you take up lots of extra time at a table, remember that the wait person taking care of you could be earning multiple tips at that table while you’re sitting there, so be sure to tip accordingly. If you think this is unreasonable, you probably shouldn’t be eating in restaurants.)

As reported today by the Observer’s Eric Frazier, Johnson went home,  and then told friends about the inconsiderate couple, whom she called “cheap piece of shit camper(s).” Johnson told friends her tale of woe by posting on Facebook. Hey, it’s a free country, right? Well, apparently not, because the folks at Brixx soon fired Johnson for griping. The company, you see, has a policy against speaking disparagingly about customers, and against “casting the restaurant in a negative light on social networks.”

Johnson’s case seems a clear-cut violation of her freedom of speech. If Johnson wants to talk about customers once she is away from her employer’s premises, what right does her employer have to tell her she can’t? Realistically, how many times have you complained to friends about someone unpleasant whom you had to deal with at work? I mean, it’s practically an American tradition. And just because Johnson used “new media” to lodge her gripe, how is the new media’s long reach her fault — and, more importantly, how does it nullify her right to free speech?

In the past 20 or so years, American employees have seen an increase in employers’ attempts to control their speech, to the point that the practice has become old hat at many businesses. That attitude is as wrong-headed as it can be, and needs to be struck down by the courts. Contrary to what many corporations think,  employees are not company possessions, and businesses are not our parents. They are also, most certainly, not above the U.S. Constitution.  As a free speech fundamentalist, I think any rule against making disparaging comments about customers away from company property is intrusive and offensive. And if a worker casts her employer "in a negative light" while she’s away from work, that, too, is her business. In fact, she’d be no different than the vast hordes of employees who do the same thing from time to time. Those employees’ freedom of speech shouldn’t be curtailed just because their companies may not like what they say on their own time. Sure, Johnson’s Facebook post could conceivably, albeit slightly, affect Brixx’s bottom line. But here is another, more critical, bottom line: Employers are not feudal lords or plantation owners, and employees are not company possessions.

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