When Jason Pinter lost his job as an editor at Crown earlier this spring for some analytical musing about the book business on his blog, recriminations against Crown on Pinter's behalf surfaced quickly. “This is a classic case of corporate publishing at its cowardly worst,” fumed Sarah Weinman at GalleyCat. “I guess free speech is vastly overrated,” said a commenter on Pinter's blog. Pinter, who has since landed at St. Martin's, is but the latest victim of an alarming trend: employers who see threats in expressive activities by employees that scarcely jeopardize the firm's genuine economic or efficiency interests.

What happened to Pinter reveals that although we might like to think that book publishing is part and parcel of the nation's rich free speech tradition, the publishing industry is really no different from the rest of corporate America when it comes to chilling the expressive rights of workers. Our system of constitutional and employment law, in tandem with accepted norms of management practice, have created an American workplace where freedom of speech is something you do after work, on your own time, and even then only if your employer approves.

Blogs, wikis, newsgroups, IM, e-mail and other forms of online communication provide readily available ways for employees to communicate easily and instantly with the wider world. People like to talk about their jobs and complain about their employers; that's been true for as long as there have been jobs and employers. Pinter's experience reveals that as in other industries, some employers in publishing are apprehensive about how new forms of online employee speech might threaten office harmony or business interests. News stories following Pinter's dismissal pointed to the larger question of policies or guidelines for employee expression on the Internet.

Apparently, it was this sort of corporate “guideline” that put Pinter out on the street. A policy at Crown's corporate parent, Random House, calls on employees to “apply the same standards of personal and professional responsibility and decorum to your dealings on blogs (whether your own or others') and instant messaging as you would to any other aspect of your business activities.” This might seem pretty reasonable at first—a plea to act responsibly—but closer scrutiny reveals it to be vague and intrusive. Sure, one can overinterpret this sort of rule; after all, corporate HR and PR departments make vacuous pronouncements all the time. But lurking in vague statements about being “professional” in your personal communication is a not-so-veiled hint that anything said could lead to trouble, so be sure to think really carefully before saying much of anything.

The Random House policy contains another familiar provision in corporate guidelines around employee speech: if you “mention Random House or workplace issues or matters relevant to publishing, you should make it clear that opinions stated are not necessarily those expressed or endorsed by Random House.” This, too, might seem superficially reasonable—a firm, like a person, is entitled to avoid being associated with unwanted speech. But insisting that anything a publishing professional might say on “matters relevant to publishing” has to be distanced from the firm? A requirement that employees ensure that their expressive activities are always explicitly distinguishable from corporate discourse, “or else,” has the look and feel of intimidation.

After a while these sorts of policies start to look less like friendly advice on how to be a good employee and more like the raw materials of a policy backstory for use later when it comes time to punish or terminate the expressively adventurous. When employers like Crown overreact to essentially harmless employee speech and everyone finds out about it, it puts everyone else on notice and at risk for the consequences of their speech. This chill on free expression at and about the workplace diminishes not just people's rights as employees, but their effectiveness as professionals and indeed as citizens—as participants in the civic conversations that make democracy work. In the meantime, employees like Jason Pinter have little choice but to accept limits on freedom of expression as a condition of work, or move on.

Author Information
Bruce Barry teaches management and sociology at Vanderbilt University. Berrett-Koehler will publish his book Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace in June.