Must we guard our speech at work?


A team member at our veterinary practice has controversial decorations on her car, and our practice manager is worried that the materials will offend clients when they see the car parked in front of the veterinary practice. Does it violate the employee's right to freedom of speech if the manager asks her to remove the potentially offensive material?-Caught in the Middle

Dear Stuck Between Bigotry and Freedom:

The good news about America is that whether you cling to outdated, insensitive, and potentially offensive ways of expressing yourself or try to get others to understand a new era of inclusion and diversity, you are protected by law. However, our right to expression primarily only extends to our homes and public domain. If, however, we are on private property and employed in a private enterprise, we are subject to the policies of that organization if we take a paycheck.

Shawn McVey, MA, MSW

Consider this advice from attorney Todd Wulffson, a partner with the California law firm of Carothers, DiSante, and Freudenberger: "Given the fact that freedom of speech is part of the Bill of Rights and taught to us in elementary school, people have the misconception that it applies in all instances. The reality is that freedom of speech in the Bill of Rights only applies to actions taken by the government. A private employer can, and virtually all do, dictate what and how an employee deals with customers, other employees, and the public, whether it's by instructing employees what to say to customers or by proscribing certain conduct—for example, prohibiting sexually harassing comments, offensive statements, or disparaging the business."

Need help now?

Double check with an attorney in your state to review your state's laws, but it's likely your manager can tell the employee to remove the offensive decoration or park the car off the employer's property. Remember, as an employee, you can always choose to leave a business if freedom of expression is more important to you than a paycheck or work satisfaction.—Shawn

Got a question? Ask Shawn.

Maybe you're tired of babysitting your team members. Perhaps you're looking for strategies to beat a bully. Shawn can help. Shawn McVey, MA, MSW, is a member of the Firstline and Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory boards and CEO of McVey Management Solutions in Chicago. Email your question to Then visit to read McVey's advice on other hot topics, including how to talk to angry clients, the top 10 ways to kill team communication, what to do when your doctor disses you, and more.

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