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Can an employer fire someone for political reasons?

In recent months, the political conversation in America has grown very tense, and demonstrators have chosen to rally and protest a number of politically divisive issues. While this is an important part of the political process, it also creates a great deal of confusion about the boundaries of free speech and how exercising free speech may incur consequences. Clearly, these are very difficult things to discuss fairly and professionally, but are also important to understand.

One particularly difficult issue is whether or not an employer can fire an employee for choosing to participate in controversial political speech. While it is still shocking to most of America, several groups supporting white nationalism have gained a great deal of exposure in recent weeks, and pictures of individuals marching, chanting or otherwise participating in controversial demonstrations has resulted in many calls for anyone who employs individuals who identify with political hate groups to fire them.

This leads to an important question — is it legal to fire someone for identifying with offensive political views, such a so-called "neo-Nazis"? These individuals have served as shorthand for "these are the bad guys" in many books, television shows and movies ever since World War II, after all.

Surprisingly, this is not a very simple question to answer. Even objectively reprehensible political views do enjoy the same free speech protections as other, more mainstream views. In many cases, it may depend on the nature of the employee's employment contract or lack of a contract. If an employer does choose to fire an employee for political reasons (assuming the employee only nonviolently expressed his or her views and did not break any particular law), he or she may face a civil suit for wrongful termination. On the other hand, if the employee is an "at-will" worker, an employer may have grounds to fire him or her without repercussions.

In many cases, political affiliation does not qualify for protection under nondiscrimination laws.

Hateful rhetoric against any people group is never acceptable, and should not be normalized. If you have further questions about how freedom of speech may affect employment, you can consult with an experienced attorney.

Source: Washington Post, "Can private employers fire employees for going to a white supremacist rally?," Eugene Volohk, Aug. 16, 2017

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