Skip to main content

The Cringing and the Craven: Freedom of Expression in, Around, and Beyond the Workplace

  • Bruce Barry

Work is a place where many adults devote significant portions of their waking lives, but it is also a place where civil liberties, including freedom of speech, are significantly constrained. I examine the regulation and control of expressive activity in and around the workplace from legal, managerial, and ethical perspectives. The focus of this article is on workplace freedom of expression: the ability to engage in acts of expression at or away from the workplace, on subjects related or unrelated to the workplace, free from the threat of discipline or discharge. I present a taxonomy of workplace-relevant acts of expression, describe the present legal status of workplace expression, review and integrate theoretical perspectives on free speech, drawn mainly from legal theory and philosophy, and critically assess the state of freedom of expression in the workplace, arguing that it is excessively and unnecessarily limited in both law and management practice.

Hide All
Alge, B. J. 2001. “Effects of Computer Surveillance on Perceptions of Privacy and Procedural Justice.Journal of Applied Psychology 86: 797804.
Allred, S. 1988. “From Connick to Confusion: The Struggle to Define Speech on Matters of Public Concern.Indiana Law Journal 64: 4381.
Almond, G. A. 1991. “Capitalism and Democracy.Political Science and Politics 24: 467–74.
Andrias, K. E. 2003. “A Robust Public Debate: Realizing Free Speech in Workplace Representation Elections.Yale Law Journal 112: 2415–63.
Associated Press 1999. “Supreme Court Upholds Firing of Man who Refused to Put Flag Up at Work.” Archives of Television Station WTNH, New Haven/Hartford, Conn. (October 4, 1999) (accessed September, 28, 2004, at
Ayoub, H. 1984. “The State Action Doctrine in State and Federal Courts.Florida State University Law Review 11: 893920.
Baker, C. E. 1989. Human Liberty and Freedom of Speech. New York: Oxford University Press.
Balkin, J. M. 1990. “Some Realism about Pluralism: Legal Realist Approaches to the First Amendment.Duke Law Journal 1990: 375430.
Balkin, J. M. 2004. “Digital Speech and Democratic Culture: A Theory of Freedom of Expression for the Information Society.New York University Law Review 79: 158.
Ballam, D. A. 1996. “Exploding the Original Myth Regarding Employment-at-Will: The True Origins of the Doctrine.Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law 17: 91130.
Ballam, D. A. 2000. “Employment-at-Will: The Impending Death of a Doctrine.American Business Law Journal 37: 653–87.
Barak-Erez, D. 1995. “A State Action Doctrine for an Age o Privatization.Syracuse Law Review 45: 1169–92.
Barry, B., and Shapiro, D. L. 2000. “When Will Grievants Choose Voice?: A Test of Situational, Motivational, and Attributional Explanations.International Journal of Conflict Management 11: 106–34.
Berenson, A. 2002. “Enron Fired Workers for Complaining Online.The New York Times (January 21): C1.
Bies, R. J. 1996. “Beyond the Hidden Self: Psychological and Ethical Aspects of Privacy in Organizations.” In Codes of Conduct: Behavioral Research into Business Ethics, ed. Messick, D. M. and Tenbrunsel, A. E.New York: Russell Sage, 104–16.
Bingham, L. B. 1994. “Employee Free Speech in the Workplace: Using the First Amendment as Public Policy for Wrongful Discharge Actions.Ohio State Law Journal 55: 341–91.
Blades, L. E. 1967. “Employment-at-Will vs. Individual Freedom: On Limiting the Abusive Exercise of Employer Power.Columbia Law Review 67: 1404–35.
Bloch, S. J. 2005. “The Judgment of History: Faction, Political Machines, and the Hatch Act.Journal of Labor & Employment Law 7: 225–77.
Bork, R. H. 1971. “Neutral Principles and Some First Amendment Problems.Indiana Law Journal 47: 135.
Bork, R. H. 1978. The Individual, the State, and the First Amendment. Unpublished speech at the University of Michigan (cited in Baker 1989: 293, n. 6).
Bowen, F., and Blackmon, K. 2003. “Spirals of Silence: The Dynamic Effects of Diversity on Organizational Voice.Journal of Management Studies 40: 13931417.
Brown, W. S. 1996. “Technology, Workplace Privacy, and Personhood.Journal of Business Ethics 15: 1237–48.
Browne, K. R. 1991. “Title VII as Censorship: Hostile-Environment Harassment and the First Amendment.Ohio State Law Journal 52: 481550.
Callahan, E. S., Dworkin, T. M., Fort, T. L., and Schipani, C. A. 2002. “Integrating Trends in Whistleblowing and Corporate Governance: Promoting Organizational Effectiveness, Societal Responsibility, and Employee Empowerment.American Business Law Journal 40: 177215.
Campbell, T. 2002. Workplace Freedom of Expression. Paper presented at the International Institute for Public Ethics Biennial Conference, Brisbane, Australia.
Cavico, F. J. 2004. “Private Sector Whistleblowing and the Employment-at-Will Doctrine: A Comparative Legal, Ethical, and Pragmatic Analysis.South Texas Law Review 45: 543645.
Chemerinsky, E. 1985. “Rethinking State Action.Northwestern University Law Review 80: 503–57.
Cohen, J. 1993. “Freedom of Expression.Philosophy and Public Affairs 22: 207–63.
Connor, P. E. 1992. “Decision-Making Participation Patterns: The Role of Organizational Context.Academy of Management Journal 35: 218–31.
Detert, J. R., and Edmondson, A. C. 2005. No Exit, No Voice: The Bind of Risky Voice Opportunities in Organizations. Harvard Business School Working Paper Series, No. 05049.
Dunford, B. B., and Devine, D. J. 1998. “Employment-at-Will and Employment Discharge: A Justice Perspective on Legal Action following Termination.Personnel Psychology 51: 903–34.
Dworkin, R. 1992. “The Coming Battles over Free Speech.New York Review of Books 39(11): 5564.
Eagly, A. H., and Chaiken, S. 1993. The Psychology of Attitudes. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Emerson, T. I. 1963. “Toward a General Theory of the First Amendment.Yale Law Journal 72: 877956.
Emerson, T. I. 1970. The System of Freedom of Expression. New York: Random House.
Epstein, R. A. 1984. “In Defense of the Contract At Will.University of Chicago Law Review 51: 947–82.
Estlund, C. 2003. Working Together: How Workplace Bonds Strengthen a Diverse Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Estlund, C. L. 1995. “Free Speech and Due Process in the Workplace.Indiana Law Journal 71: 101–51.
Estlund, C. L. 1997. “Freedom of Expression in the Workplace and the Problem of Discriminatory Harassment.Texas Law Review 75: 688777.
Estlund, C. L. 2000. “Working Together: The Workplace, Civil Society, and the Law.George-town Law Journal 89: 195.
Ewing, D. W. 1974. “Free Speech from Nine to Five.The Nation 218: 755–56.
Ewing, D. W. 1977. Freedom inside the Organization. New York: E. P. Dutton.
Ewing, D. W. 1983. Do it My Way or You're Fired: Employee Rights and the Changing Role of Management Prerogatives. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Falcone, P. 1999. A Legal Dichotomy? HR Magazine 44(5): 110–20.
Finifter, A. W. 1974. “The Friendship Group as a Protective Environment for Political Deviants.The American Political Science Review 68: 607–25.
Fiss, O. M. 1996a. The Irony of Free Speech. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Fiss, O. M. 1996b. Liberalism Divided: Freedom of Speech and the Many Uses of State Power. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.
Ford, C. M. 1996. “A Theory of Individual Creative Action in Multiple Social Domains.Academy of Management Review 21: 1112–42.
Freedman, W. 1988. Freedom of Speech on Private Property. New York: Quorum.
Frisman, P. 1999. “Fired Worker Wins, so to Speak.Connecticut Law Tribune (October 25) (via LexisNexis).
Galston, W. 2000. “Civil Society and the ‘Art of Association.’Journal of Democracy 11(1): 6470.
Gilbert, A. 2005. “FAQ: Blogging on the Job.” CNET (March 8) (accessed April 19, 2005, at–1030_3–5597010.html).
Greenawalt, K. 1989. “Free Speech Justifications.Columbia Law Review 89: 119–55.
Grodin, J. R. 1991. “Constitutional Values in the Private Sector Workplace.Industrial Relations Law Journal 13: 137.
Holden, V. S. 1995. “Effective Voice Rights in the Workplace.” In Freeing the First Amendment: Critical Perspectives on Freedom of Expression, ed. Allen, D. S. and Jensen, R.New York: New York University Press, 114–35.
Holmes, S. A. 1998. “Broker Asserts Political Views Drew Pressure.The New York Times (July 10): A10.
Huckfeldt, R., Beck, P. A., Dalton, R. J., and Levine, J. 1995. “Political Environments, Cohesive Social Groups, and the Communication of Public Opinion.American Journal of Political Science 39: 1025–54.
Huckfeldt, R., and Sprague, J. 1995. Citizens, Politics, and Social Communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
ILO. 1958. Convention concerning Discrimination in Respect of Employment and Occupation. International Labour Organization Convention 111, adopted June 25, 1958 (accessed February 15, 2005, at
ILO 1982. Convention concerning Termination of Employment at the Initiative of the Employer. International Labour Organization Convention 158, adopted June 22, 1982 (accessed February 15, 2005, at
Ingber, S. 1990. “Rediscovering the Communal Worth of Individual Rights: The First Amendment in Institutional Contexts.Texas Law Review 69: 1108.
Janove, J. 2005. “Keep ‘em at Will, Treat ‘em for Cause.HR Magazine 50(5): 111–17.
Kant, I. 1785/1969. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Beck, L. W.Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
Kilcommins, S., McClean, E., McDonagh, M., Mullally, S., and Whelan, D. 2004. Extending the Scope of Employment Equality Legislation: Comparative Perspectives on the Prohibited Grounds of Discrimination. Report commissioned by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Government of Ireland. Dublin: Stationary Office.
Kim, P. T. 1997. “Bargaining with Imperfect Information: A Study of Worker Perceptions of Legal Protection in an At-Will World.Cornell Law Review 83: 105–60.
Kittner, M., and Kohler, T. C. 2000. “Conditioning Expectations: The Protection of the Employment Bond in German and American Law.Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal 21: 263330.
Klare, K. E. 1982. “The Public/Private Distinction in Labor Law.University of Pennsylvania Law Review 130: 13581422.
Kohler, T. C. 1999. “The Employment Relation and its Ordering at Century's End: Reflections on Emerging Trends in the United States.Boston College Law Review 41: 103–23.
Ladenson, R. F. 1989. “Free Speech in the Workplace and the Public-Private Distinction.Law and Philosophy 7: 247–61.
Leonard, A. S. 1988. “A New Common Law of Employment Termination.North Carolina Law Review 66: 631–86.
Lieberwitz, R. L. 1986. “Freedom of Speech in Public Sector Employment: The Deinstitutionalization of the Public Sector Workplace.University of California, Davis, Law Review 19: 597668.
Lippke, R. 1992. “Speech, Conscience, and Work.Social Theory and Practice 18: 237–58.
Lowenfels, L. D., and Bromberg, A. R. 2004. “Implied Private Actions under Sarbanes-Oxley.Seton Hall Law Review 34: 775806.
Manning, R. C. 1997. “Liberal and Communitarian Defense of Workplace Privacy.Journal of Business Ethics 16: 817–23.
Marshall, W. P. 1985. “Diluting Constitutional Rights: Rethinking ‘Rethinking State Action.’” Northwestern University Law Review 80: 558–70.
Massaro, T. M. 1987. “Significant Silences: Freedom of Speech in the Public Sector Workplace.Southern California Law Review 61: 377.
McCall, J. J. 2003. “A Defense of Just Cause Dismissal Rules.Business Ethics Quarterly 13: 151–75.
Meiklejohn, A. 1948/1965. Political Freedom: The Constitutional Powers of the People. New York: Oxford University Press.
Meiklejohn, A. 1961. “The First Amendment is an Absolute.Supreme Court Review 1961: 245–66.
Mill, J. S. 1859/1974. On Liberty. Baltimore: Penguin.
Morrison, E. W., and Milliken, F. J. 2000. “Organizational Silence: A Barrier to Change and Development in a Pluralistic World.Academy of Management Review 25: 706–25.
Muhl, C. J. 2001. “The Employment-at-Will Doctrine: Three Major Exceptions.Monthly Labor Review 124(1): 311.
Mutz, D. C. 2002. “The Consequences of Cross-Cutting Networks for Political Participation.American Journal of Political Science 46: 838–55.
Near, J. P., and Miceli, M. P. 1995Effective Whistle-Blowing.Academy of Management Review 20: 679708.
Noelle-Neumann, E. 1991. “The Theory of Public Opinion: The Concept of the Spiral of Silence.” In Communication Yearbook 14, ed. Anderson, J.Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 256–87.
Norris, M. P. 1991. “Limitations on an Employer's Ability to Discipline Free Speech.Employee Relations Law Journal 17: 473–81.
Oppenheimer, D. B. 1996. “Workplace Harassment and the First Amendment: A Reply to Professor Volokh.Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law 17: 321–32.
Peller, G., and Tushnet, M. 2004. “State Action and a New Birth of Freedom.Georgetown Law Journal 92: 779817.
Post, R. 1993. “Meiklejohn's Mistake: Individual Autonomy and the Reform of Public Discourse.University of Colorado Law Review 64: 1109–37.
Post, R. C. 1995. Constitutional Domains: Democracy, Community, Management. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Post, R. C. 2000. “Reconciling Theory and Doctrine in First Amendment Jurisprudence.California Law Review 88: 2353–74.
Putnam, R. D. 1995. “Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital.Journal of Democracy 6(1): 6578.
Putnam, R. D. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Radin, T. J., and Werhane, P. H. 2003. “Employment-at-Will, Employee Rights, and Future Directions for Employment.Business Ethics Quarterly 13 113–30.
Redish, M. H. 1982. The Value of Free Speech.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 130: 591645.
Reich, C. A. 1991. “The Individual Sector.Yale Law Journal 100: 1409–48.
Rubin, E. L. 2005. Beyond Camelot: Rethinking Politics and Law for the Modern State. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Rudy, J. 2002. “What They Don't Know Won't Hurt Them: Defending Employment-at-Will in Light of Findings that Employees Believe they Possess Just Cause Protection.Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law 23: 307–67.
Sangree, S. 1995. “Title VII Prohibitions against Hostile Environment Sexual Harassment and the First Amendment: No Collision in Sight.Rutgers Law Review 47: 461561.
Scanlon, T. 1972. “A Theory of Freedom of Expression.Philosophy & Public Affairs 1: 204–26.
Scanlon, T. 1979. “Freedom of Expression and Categories of Expression.University of Pittsburgh Law Review 40: 519–50.
Schultz, V. 2000. “Life's Work.Columbia Law Review 100: 18811964.
Seligman, A. B. 1992. The Idea of Civil Society. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Shiffrin, S. 1984. “The First Amendment and Economic Regulation: Away from a General Theory of the First Amendment.Northwestern University Law Review 78: 1212–83.
Sobel, R. 1993. “From Occupational Involvement to Political Participation: An Exploratory Analysis.Political Behavior 15: 339–53.
Stancil, C. L. 2004. “Moulton Woman Says She Lost Job for Sporting Kerry Sticker on Car.Decatur Daily (September 12) (accessed February 22, 2005, at
Strauss, D. A. 1991. “Persuasion, Autonomy, and Freedom of Expression.Columbia Law Review 91: 334–71.
Sugarman, S. D. 2003. “‘Lifestyle Discrimination’ in Employment.” Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law 24: 377438.
Summers, C. W. 1986. “The Privatization of Personal Freedoms and Enrichment of Democracy: Some Lessons from Labor Law.University of Illinois Law Review 1986: 689723.
Summers, C. W. 2000. “Employment at Will in the United States: The Divine Right of Employers.Journal of Labor & Employment Law 3: 6586.
Sunstein, C. R. 1992. “Free Speech Now.University of Chicago Law Review 59: 255316.
Sunstein, C. R. 1993. Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech. New York: Free Press.
Sunstein, C. R. 2002. “State Action Is always Present.Chicago Journal of International Law 3: 465–69.
de Tocqueville, A. 1835/1969. Democracy in America. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books.
Tyler, T. R., Degoey, P., and Smith, H. 1996. “Understanding Why the Justice of Group Procedures Matters: A Test of the Psychological Dynamics of the Group-Value Model.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 70: 913–30.
Van Dyne, L., Ang, S., and Botero, I. C. 2003. “Conceptualizing Employee Silence and Employee Voice as Multidimensional Constructs.Journal of Management Studies 40: 1359–92.
Vickers, L. 2002. Freedeom of Speech and Employment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Volokh, E. 1995. “How Harassment Law Restricts Free Speech.Rutgers Law Review 47: 563–76.
Wallace, P. 2004. The Internet in the Workplace: How New Technology Is Transforming Work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wallack, T. 2005. “Beware if Your Blog Is Related to Work.San Francisco Chronicle (January 24): C1.
Weatherford, M. S. 1982. “Interpersonal Networks and Political Behavior.American Journal of Political Science 26: 117–43.
Wells, M. L. 2001. “Section 1983, the First Amendment, and Public Employee Speech: Shaping the Right to Fit the Remedy (and Vice Versa).Georgia Law Review 35: 9391019.
Werhane, P. H. 1985. Persons, Rights & Corporations. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
Werhane, P. H. 1999. “Justice and Trust.Journal of Business Ethics 21: 237–49.
Werhane, P. H., Radin, T. J., and Bowie, N. E. 2004. Employment and Employee Rights. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.
Yamada, D. C. 1998. “Voices from the Cubicle: Protecting and Encouraging Private Employee Speech in the Post-Industrial Workplace.Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law 19: 159.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Business Ethics Quarterly
  • ISSN: 1052-150X
  • EISSN: 2153-3326
  • URL: /core/journals/business-ethics-quarterly
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed