In My Words: A Pathway to Free Expression in the Workplace

In this offering from the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Professors Naeemah Clark and Brooke Barnett offer guidance to organizations about creating a workplace culture that navigates the tension between free expression and inclusivity. The column was published in The Times-News of Burlington.

By Naeemah Clark and Brooke Barnett

Recent debates in the U.S. Congress focused on the personal beliefs and allegiances of its members have increased the spotlight on balancing free expression, diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Naeemah Clark, left, and Brooke Barnett

Freedom of expression, diversity and inclusion of ideas are not mutually exclusive and in many cases, they work together to deepen connections and understandings between colleagues.

However, there can also be clear tensions when conflicting points of view collide with individual identities.

For example, many workplaces are actively seeking to support underrepresented groups on their teams, but if a co-worker is sharing views that are exclusionary to marginalized groups, this discourse can create hostile feelings in an otherwise productive workplace.

At the same time, when the power and privileges that come with majority race and gender identities control the discussions in the breakroom, the work environment can become toxic for those in marginalized groups.

Workplace guidelines can help support free expression efforts.

As a media law scholar and a communication industry scholar, we looked to First Amendment jurisprudence for helpful guidance to consider when balancing free expression and the support of a diverse and inclusive workplace.

The First Amendment states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Congress is broadly interpreted to mean local, state and federal government as well as public funded organizations such as universities. Private organizations including private universities and companies that are not government entities are not bound in the same way by this special obligation. These institutions must develop their own ways to balance free expression and diversity and inclusion that support an organization’s cultural climate.

There is a range of ways that the First Amendment can be considered when it comes to the balance of free expression and racist speech, homophobic, sexist or other offensive or problematic speech, but for the sake of brevity we will articulate the two major camps in the U.S.

In one camp are those who see freedom of expression as a fundamental right that should be rarely if ever restrained. They argue that any restriction on speech is unwise because the regulations used to silence bigots can also be used to silence you as well.

Cases that have defended racist and anti-Semitic speakers have been used as arguments to defend those fighting for justice.

For strong free speech advocates, the solution to discriminatory or offensive speech is counter-speech, more speech, educational efforts and social norming campaigns. This philosophy known as the marketplace of ideas means more dialogue and learning opportunities.

In the other camp are those who argue that not all voices in the marketplace should have the same access to those in the public square.

In this perspective, absolute free speech in the workplace or public sphere does not adequately protect marginalized groups from the very real harms of hate speech.

They argue that not all speech is equal. Hateful speech for example can have a silencing effect that undermines the goals of free speech in the first place and we can limit it in the way we have with other forms of prohibited speech (e.g., legal obscenity, incitements to violence).

This view also holds that the marketplace of ideas notion doesn’t work because the viewpoints of underrepresented groups have barriers to the marketplace, such as a lack of financial or social capital.

Whichever camp is considered, the underlying goal of the First Amendment hinges on speech that furthers a free, well-informed society. Using a similar mindset, all workplaces can create a strong culture that is clear about their values and can cultivate dialogues that further their missions.

When we worked together at Elon University we grappled with these conflicts and determined that we were trying to attempt to stretch a tightrope of tension and make it a narrow, but passable sidewalk.

We offer one modest, but tangible way to construct your own passable sidewalk.

First, create a list of values that are elemental to your institution or organization.

Second, state what is not desired (e.g., proselytizing at work, harassment, hate speech) and then focus on what people should do (e.g., importance of respect, listening, responsibilities of speech, need for evidence-based reasoning).

Next, engage your community members and stakeholders in a series of dialogues where you can exchange views around these ideas to create a statement that reflects the commitments that will guide the institution. A collective group of us wrote a statement of Elon’s commitment to the values of freedom of expression and inclusivity that is used as a starting place when difficult tensions arise.

The statement is not the end, but the beginning of a conversation. The statement, much like the First Amendment, should be considered to be a living document that can become a reference point when your organization is wrestling with a dilemma where free expression and an inclusive workplace are in competition.

Naeemah Clark, is the J. Earl Danieley Distinguished Professor and professor of cinema and television at Elon. Brooke Barnett is dean of the College of Communication at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, and was formerly a member of the Elon faculty and administration. 

Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.