Earlier this month ESPN sports caster Jemele Hill tweeted that Donald Trump is a ‘white supremacist’ and a ‘bigot.’ It has been suggested that she be terminated. But in Connecticut, there is a law that protects employees from discipline or discharge for expressing “rights guaranteed by the first amendment to the United States Constitution…” ( C.G.S. 31-51q) This law applies to private employers, like ESPN. The speech must be on a “matter of public concern,” and it must not interfere with the employee’s performance, or working relationship between employee and employer.
Jemele’s tweets were posted to her personal Twitter account, and were on a matter of public concern. A Connecticut Superior Court has held that “either the presence of absence of racism in high public office, is a public matter.” (Sierra v. State, 2001 Conn. Super. Lexis 1604)
As to whether it interferes with her performance or work relationships, ESPN could argue that the public’s reaction – including the President himself weighing in on the issue – has disrupted her work, as well as the company’s. It is our opinion that this would be a ‘Heckler’s Veto’ argument. (More on that here) A similar argument was rejected by the Supreme Court in 1992 when the court held that “…Speech cannot be financially burdened any more than it can be punished or banned simply because it might offend a hostile mob.” (Forsyth County v. The Nationalist Movement, 505 U.S. 123, 1992)
All of this puts Jemele’s speech squarely within protection of the law, and ESPN may not discipline her for those tweets.
If you are facing a wrongful termination contact Hayber, McKenna, & Dinsmore today.