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Freedom of Speech at Work & Employment Termination

In March 2017, conservative commentator Tomi Lahren was suspended from her position at The Blaze, a multimedia news network founded by Glenn Beck, allegedly over her support for abortion rights. While some supported Lahren’s view, others called for her firing. As of this writing, no decision has been made, but it nonetheless brings up salient questions regarding Lahren’s rights, as well as those of her employer. Is there ever a time when one can be terminated for their political opinion, or is Lahren’s an isolated case due to her public status?

Employment Is Usually At Will

With very limited exceptions, employment in almost every U.S. state, South Carolina included, is held to be at will. This means that unless there is a legal prohibition like a union contract or a public policy exception contained in law (such as those in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), an employer is able to terminate you without cause. This is usually justified by arguing that a worker is free at any time to quit and work elsewhere, though if someone is unable to do so for any reason, it can be very little solace.

Public policy exceptions in particular protect many from being unceremoniously terminated, but only if you can prove that you were subjected to mistreatment directly due to your membership in a protected class, and this can be difficult to do. Employers have many ways to argue that you were terminated due to your performance, or due to some other reason that does not fall under a public policy exception. This arguably counts for even more in the case of public figures, simply because so much of their work product is available to all to view and judge.

South Carolina Employment Termination Law

While federal law holds that most employment is at will, there is a provision in South Carolina law that might have affected Lahren’s case if her firing had occurred within the state, as opposed to elsewhere. Section 16-17-560 of the South Carolina Code states explicitly that it is unlawful to discharge a citizen (which Ms. Lahren is) from employment “because of political opinions or the exercise of political rights and privileges” that every citizen is supposed to enjoy.

While many states have laws similar to this one, South Carolina’s is somewhat unique in that it does not distinguish state action from private action. In other words, most states shield private employers from wrongful termination claims over political disagreements, but South Carolina does not. While many argue that it should not be, it is not a stretch to state that abortion rights are considered political in the U.S. in this day and age. If Ms. Lahren were in South Carolina and able to show that she was disciplined and/or terminated expressly due to her views, she might conceivably have a case for wrongful termination.

Get Help With Your Case

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but sometimes, they can get us in trouble. If you are in a situation where you have been disciplined or terminated due to your political views, you may have a case against your employer. Attorney A. Christopher Potts and his North Charleston employment discrimination firm of Hitchcock & Potts can help.

Contact us today to set up an initial consultation.

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