In Business, Law, Social commentary on June 13, 2013 at 12:07 am

WARNING: Believing that the First Amendment gives you the legal right to express your opinion may be hazardous to your career.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution says: “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.”

Of course, that refers only to Congress.  It says nothing about employers–and especially those self-appointed pseudo-gods who claim to be the personification of virtue and infallibility.

If you doubt it, just ask Johnny Cook, who until recently worked as a bus driver for the Haralson County Middle School in Georgia.

In late May, a sixth-grade student boarding Cook’s school bus said he was still hungry.  Cook asked why, and the student said he hadn’t been given any lunch.

The reason: He had been forty cents short for buying a reduced lunch.  So he hadn’t been given anything, not even the peanut butter offered to everyone else.

Furious, Cook vented his spleen on his Facebook page on May 21:

“This child is already on reduced lunch [program] and we can’t let him eat. Are you kidding me? I’m certian  there was leftover food thrown away today.

“But kids were turned away because they didn’t have .40 on there account. As a tax payer I would much rather feed a child than throw it away. I would rather feed a child than to give food stamps to a crack head.”

Just two days later, Cook was fired over that post.

Johnny Cook and friends

The “official reason,” as given by Superintendent Brett Stanton, was that Cook had violated the school’s social media policy by daring to express his opinion publicly.

The policy states:

Students who post or contribute any comment or content on social networking sites that cause a substantial disruption to the instructional environment are subject to disciplinary procedures.

“Employees who post or contribute any comment or content on social networking sites that causes a substantial disruption to the instructional environment are subject to disciplinary procedures up and including termination.”

This is similar to the policies–and atmosphere–of the Joseph McCarthy “smear and fear” era of the 1950s.  You didn’t have to actually be proven an actual Communist, or even a Communist sympathizer.

All that was neeeded to condemn you to permanent unemployment was to become “controversial.”  That way, the employer didn’t have to actually prove the employee’s unfitness.

The Almighty Employer need only declare: “Your usefulness to me is over.”

Consider the statement offered by Superintendent Stanton:  “I can assure you it did not happen,” he told the CBS affiliate in Atlanta.

And how could he be so certain?  Because, said Stanton, he had thoroughly investigated the incident.

“The video surveillance footage clearly shows that the student never went through the lunch lines at the county middle school,” Stanton said.

Therefore, Stanton said, the boy couldn’t have been offered the bagged lunch for students in his situation.

When asked if someone should have noticed the boy wasn’t eating lunch, he had a ready excuse for that: “When you have almost 1,000 students, it’s very difficult to notice.”

Stanton wouldn’t discuss Cook’s termination because it’s a personnel matter, but did say the school district has a strict Facebook policy.

CBS Atlanta contacted the sixth-grader’s family–who backed up Cook’s story.

Cook, who is married and the father of two kids, told CBS Atlanta that he felt in his “heart of hearts the kid was telling the truth.”

A petition has been posted to Change.org demanding that Cook be reinstated.  It has so far gained more than 10,000 signatures.

Nor is Cook the only victim of employers who have no regard for the First Amendment.

Ashley Warden, a waitress at an Oklahoma City Chili’s insulted “stupid cops” on her Facebook page.   In 2012, her potty-training toddler pulled down his pants in his grandmother’s front yard–and a passing officer gave Warden a public urination ticket for $2,500.

Warden was quickly fired.  In an official statement, Chilli’s gave this excuse:

“With the changing world of digital and social media, Chili’s has Social Media Guidelines in place, asking our team members to always be respectful of our guests and to use proper judgement when discussing actions in the work place.  After looking into the matter, we have taken action to prevent this from happening again.”

Put more honestly: “We have taken action to prevent” other employees from daring to exercise their own First Amendment rights.

Employers need to be legally forced to show as much respect for the free speech rights of Americans as Congress is required to.

Until this happens, the workplace will continue to resemble George Orwell’s vision of 1984–a world where anyone can become a “non-person” for the most trivial of reasons.

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