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Experts weigh in on free speech and the workplace after Sterling Heights officer placed on leave for racist comments

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Posted at 5:49 PM, Feb 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-25 18:19:47-05

(WXYZ) — After a Sterling Heights officer faced discipline for a racist social media post, experts are weighing in on what's considered acceptable in the workplace and how First Amendment rights are being interpreted today online.

RELATED: Metro Detroit officer placed on unpaid leave following racist post

Whether or not an employer has a social media policy, an employment expert and attorney says you still need to know the laws and how your freedoms are interpreted.

It was a despicable and hateful Facebook post shared by a veteran officer with the Sterling Heights Police Department on his personal page. It led to an internal investigation and him being placed on leave without pay.

The meme image shared shows George Floyd preceding his death with a Minneapolis officer placing a knee on Floyd's neck with the words, "When you gotta change a tire but don't wanna get your trousers dirty."

It's not only a violation of the agency's social media policy but a cause for termination, according to experts.

“Two key things are: do you work for the government and are you just cause or at will?” stated Deborah Gordon, an employment expert and attorney.

Gordon is an expert in employment law and says any worker must know freedom of speech doesn't mean freedom from consequences at work. And if you're an at-will employee, you can be fired.

“Your employer cannot stop you from exercising free speech. But, they can stop you from working for them,” Gordon said.

She adds that embarrassing an employer, violating policy, and making attacking or controversial statements are all ways of potentially harming a company or government employer, even if you use a personal page.

At the same time, those who belong to a union or work in the public sector or even for a private employer – who are not at-will – may find more protection for non-inflammatory posts.

“If you’re a just cause employee even for a private company and you’re fired for something you posted, that may not be enough for just cause firing and you may have a case there,” Gordon said.