Hate Speech as Protected Conduct: Reworking the Approach to Offensive Speech under the NLRA

Author:Carly Thelen
Position:J.D. Candidate, The University of Iowa College of Law, 2019. B.S.B.A., 2015, Creighton University
Pages:985-1015
SUMMARY

Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) protects employees who engage in concerted activities for purposes of mutual aid and protection. The National Labor Relations Board (“the Board”) enforces section 7 by protecting employee speech when the speech is related to concerted activity. The Board, using a broad interpretation of section 7, has extended protection to offensive speech,... (see full summary)

 
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985
Hate Speech as Protected Conduct:
Reworking the Approach to Offensive
Speech under the NLRA
Carly Thelen*
ABSTRACT: Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”)
protects employees who engage in concerted activities for purposes of mutual
aid and protection. The National Labor Relations Board (“the Board”)
enforces section 7 by protecting employee speech when the speech is related to
concerted activity. The Board, using a broad interpretation of section 7, has
extended protection to offensive speech, even hate speech. This Note argues
that this broad interpretation of section 7 to protect hate speech is contrary to
public policy and does not properly account for employers’ interest in not being
associated with employees who engage in hate speech. This Note further argues
for a reworked approach to cases involving offensive speech. The reworked
approach incorporates a categorization of the speech to determine the level of
protection. This approach properly considers employers’ interests while
maintaining the NLRA’s purpose—to prevent employer unfair labor
practices.
I.INTRODUCTION ............................................................................. 986
II.THE NLRA AND PROTECTED EMPLOYEE SPEECH ......................... 989
A.THE TRADITIONAL EMPLOYMENT RELATIONSHIP ..................... 989
B.COMMON STATUTORY REMEDIES TO EMPLOYEE FREE
SPEECH CLAIMS....................................................................... 989
C.THE NLRA AND ITS GENERAL PROTECTIONS ............................ 991
1.Employees’ Rights Under Section 7 ............................ 992
2.Enforcement Under Section 8 ..................................... 994
3.Unprotected Conduct Under Section 7 ...................... 994
D.THE BOARDS INTERPRETATION OF PROTECTED SPEECH ............ 995
1.The General Framework for Evaluating Whether
Offensive Speech is Protected ...................................... 996
*
J.D. Candidate, The University of Iowa College of Law, 2019. B.S.B.A., 2015, Creighton
University.
986 IOWA LAW REVIEW [Vol. 104:985
2.How the Board has Applied the Offensive
Speech Framework in Cases Involving
Hate Speech ................................................................... 998
III.THE HARMFUL EFFECTS OF RETAINING EMPLOYEES WHO
ENGAGE IN HATE SPEECH ........................................................... 1000
A.A HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT STIFLES EMPLOYEES
AND DAMAGES WORK MORALE .............................................. 1001
B.FAILURE TO ACT AGAINST HATE SPEECH DAMAGES
COMPANIES REPUTATIONS .................................................... 1003
C.CONFLICTING DOCTRINES AND THE RESULTING
EMPLOYER EXPOSURE TO LITIGATION RISKS ........................... 1004
IV.THE CLASSIFICATION AND REBALANCING APPROACH ................. 1006
A.THE REWORKED BALANCING TEST APPLIED TO
PROTECTED HATE SPEECH ..................................................... 1007
1.Using Categorizations to Determine Level
of Protection ................................................................ 1007
2.The Picket Line vs. the Work Line: Setting
Matters but is No Longer Dispositive ......................... 1009
3.Accounting for Employers’ Interests ......................... 1010
4.Final Balancing Act: “Nature of the Outburst”
Weighed Against Other Factors ................................. 1010
B.THE BALANCING ACT IN PRACTICE ........................................ 1011
1.Rebalancing with Proper Consideration for
Category of the Speech ............................................... 1011
2.Predicting Outcomes of Contemporary News
Events ........................................................................... 1012
V.CONCLUSION .............................................................................. 1015
I. INTRODUCTION
Recent political and ideological division within the United States has
renewed the debate about an employee’s freedom to express political beliefs.1
Particularly in wake of the resurgence of the white nationalism movement
—most notably the rally in Charlottesville, where a counter-protester was
killed2—there has been renewed debate about whether an employer can fire
1. See David Smith, Divided States of America: 62% Say Trump is Driving People Apart, Poll Finds,
GUARDIAN (Aug. 24, 2017, 11:00 AM), https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/aug/24/
trump-approval-rating-division-poll (discussing American voters’ contrasting views on whether or
not President Trump is bringing the nation together or polarizing the country).
2. Joe Heim, Recounting a Day of Rage, Hate, Violence and Death, WASH. POST (Aug. 14, 2017),
https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/local/charlottesville-timeline.

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