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Woke Activists In The Workplace Are Sparking A Surge In Free Speech Cases

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UPDATE: This story has been updated to include a response from BrightKey issued after publication.

  • Workplace activism has caused a surge in free speech litigation over the past few years as employees have been fired or disciplined for their political views, according to a public interest law firm.
  • “Normally, we get one workplace speech case every four years, and last year we got four in one year and we’ve already got another two starting to launch this year,” Terry Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
  • Pell told TheDCNF that employers face pressure from outside activists and often end up implementing “very one-sided, politicized, speech policies.”

A non-profit public interest law firm says that activism in the workplace has caused an explosion in free speech litigation across the country over the last two years, according to the organization’s president.

The Center for Individual Rights (CIR) is involved in six cases of employees being punished for expressing political views, Terry Pell, the group’s president, told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an interview. The expressions in question usually came on employee’s personal time and were often surfaced by “activist” employees.

“This is very unusual,” Pell told TheDCNF. “Normally, we get one workplace speech case every four years, and last year we got four in one year and we’ve already got another two starting to launch this year.”

In one CIR case, Greg Krehbiel, employee of Maryland marketing company BrightKey, was told when he was hired that activities and comments on his personal time, which included co-hosting a podcast, were none of the company’s business, according to CIR’s website.

However, co-workers became aware of Krehbiel expressing what Pell described as “standard conservative critiques” on diversity initiatives and hate crimes on his podcast, they claimed his opinions represented “white privilege,” demanded he be fired and staged a protest in which they walked off the job according to a complaint filed in federal court.

“Despite its earlier promise to Plaintiff… BrightKey quickly acceded to the wishes of the objecting employees and fired Plaintiff,” the complaint said, adding, “BrightKey knew that the objecting employees were motivated by Plaintiff’s race and political opinions in insisting that he be fired.”

The federal district court ruled against Krehbiel, who is appealing the decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. A Tony Warner, BrightKey’s vice president of human relations, told TheDCNF after this story had been published that the company had no comment due to pending litigation.

Pell told TheDCNF that Krehbiel’s firing reflected a trend where employers face pressure from outside political activists to adopt “very one-sided, politicized speech policies” that could result in an employee losing their job over “something you said five years ago,” Pell said, adding that employers go along because they fear “a Twitter storm.”

Pell pointed to the recent example of Joshua Katz, a classics professor at Princeton University, who claimed that his criticism of anti-racism and failure to defend free speech was the real motive behind his firing over an alleged consensual relationship with an undergraduate student.

“The Princeton matter is mind boggling,” Pell told TheDCNF, going on to say that the university set “a terrible example that will only reinforce the feeling of private employers that speech is toxic and must be suppressed by any means necessary.”

In another CIR case, Salvatore Davi, a hearing officer in New York State’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, commented on a Facebook post in October 2015, saying that the “wrong metrics” were being used to judge the success of welfare programs, according to CIR’s website. He was suspended for six months and transferred after his employer received an anonymous complaint about the posts.

“The really startling thing about this is that employees can get tagged for anything, they have no idea what they can say,” Pell told TheDCNF.

Before the complaint, Davi’s “performance reviews were all satisfactory,” and he was “described as an exemplary employee” who “had never been accused of bias in any of the thousands of individual appeals for which he had made recommendations” according to a legal filing by CIR on his behalf.

“Davi’s comments are primarily political speech about the proper role of government, which is among the most highly protected speech in our constitutional order,” United States District Judge Edward R. Korman wrote in the opinion granting summary judgement in Davi’s favor in March 2021. Davi and New York State’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance appealed the ruling to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

New York state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

In a March 2022 poll by Siena College Research Institute, 84% of respondents said “Americans not exercising their freedom of speech in everyday situations due to fear of retaliation or harsh criticism” was a serious problem.

“Concern of the loss of civil liberties is ahead or crime and education on the list of things that voters are concerned about,” Pell said.

The CIR’s other free-speech cases include those of Dr. Norman Wang, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine who was disciplined over an article published in the Journal of the American Heart Association and Richard Rynearson, an Air Force veteran who was blocked from the Air Force’s Facebook page by the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, according to the firm’s website.

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