So, a Twitter campaign has been outing folks who attended the Nazi/white supremacy/alt right rally outside the University of Virginia in which a Nazi murdered a protester and injured many others by plowing into them with a car. Some of those who have been outed were promptly fired. I've been asked whether firing someone for attending a racist rally is legal.
The answer is yes. Well, maybe. Probably. There. Are you happy?
An employer who is aware of an employee's propensity to engage in race or national origin discrimination (or any other kind of discrimination) has a duty to maintain a safe workplace. That means firing or disciplining the worker, or taking other steps to make sure he or she doesn't engage in illegal harassment or discrimination in the workplace. An employer that fails to take action could be liable for punitive damages if the racist employee acts on his/her beliefs at work.
Thus, my initial answer, which is yes, you can be fired for being a racist a**hole. However.
Some states and local governments have laws protecting you from discrimination due to your political affiliation or activities. For instance, California, Colorado, New York, North Dakota and Louisiana say it's illegal to retaliate against an employee for their off-duty participation in politics or political campaigns. Here in Broward County, it's illegal to fire employees based upon political affiliation. If you work for government, there's the good old First Amendment to protect you. Plus, the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 prohibits political affiliation/activity discrimination against federal employees.
Thus, my second answer. Maybe. This is one of those situations where two laws rub up against each other. I would think a strong argument could be made that attending a rally like last weekend's would give an employer a legitimate reason other than political affiliation to fire or discipline an employee. Once the employee starts spewing racist stuff in public and waving swastikas, that may well cross a line. Will the courts decide that the employer has a legimate business to protect? Maybe. Even with government employees, the government may well be able to prove that the employee's free speech rights were outweighed by the government's right to efficient and orderly operation.
If, however, the employee has always been respectful to coworkers and customers of color and continues to do so after the rally, maybe the employer doesn't have a legitimate reason other than political affiliation to fire the person.
Still, I default to my third answer, probably. Most states have no legal protection for political firings. So most employees have no legal protection if they attend a racist rally. The employer probably has a duty to protect coworkers and customers from a racist. I suspect most courts will say firing someone for attending a racist rally that turned murderous is perfectly legal, maybe even required.
Have a general question about employment law? Want to share a story? I welcome all comments and questions. I can't give legal advice here about specific situations but will be glad to discuss general issues and try to point you in the right direction. If you need legal advice, contact an employment lawyer in your state. Remember, anything you post here will be seen publicly, and I will comment publicly on it. It will not be confidential. Govern yourself accordingly. If you want to communicate with me confidentially as Donna Ballman, Florida lawyer rather than as Donna Ballman, blogger, my firm's website is here.