In the last year, the two names that have most dominated debates about employee free speech are former Google employee James Damore and former professional quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Both men engaged in controversial on-the-job speech that contradicted stated corporate priorities and values: the National Football League wants its players to stand for the national anthem, Kaepernick knelt in protest; Google said Damore violated its code of conduct by “advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.” Both men sparked a furious reaction, and both ultimately lost their jobs.
The debate over Kaepernick and Damore is complicated — there’s no government censorship involved, and the corporations that cut ties with them have their own free speech rights to consider. Evaluating public reaction, cynics could be forgiven for thinking the only “principle” involved is tribalism: Conservatives lined up for Damore and against progressive Google; Democrats lined up for Kaepernick, and against an NFL cowed by President Trump’s view that railing against kneeling football players was a political winner for him. But shouldn’t there be an underlying principle, a standard that protects legitimate corporate interests while also protecting the culture of American free speech? Yes.
The Damore memo triggered a lively scientific debate, with credible voices, such as neuroscientist Debra Soh, arguing that Damore’s views on gender were right. But even for those who conclude he’s wrong, the more important note was Soh’s question, “If we can’t discuss scientific truths, where does that leave us?”