Your Fist And My Nose

There is an old saying in the law: your right to extend your fist ends at the tip of my nose. In other words, the law recognizes that rights of the individual must be balanced against those of society as a whole. A recent court decision called into mind this idea. In short, you can believe whatever you want to believe so long as whatever you believe does not impinge on my right to believe whatever I want to believe, especially when working together.

The Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit (Federal Court) recently ruled a teacher had to take down three banners he placed in his classroom proclaiming things like "One Nation Under God", "God Bless America", "In God We Trust" etc. You can read the LA Times article about it here.

On first blush you might think the court ruled the offending banners had to come down on a Constitutional separation of church and state grounds. But no no no. Rather, the court ruled an employer (in this case the school district) could set reasonable speech limits on it employees. In other words, your right to free speech can be restricted by your employer while at work. This is known as reasonable workplace speech restrictions.

Imagine another teacher putting up banners saying things like: "God Is Dead", "Religion Is The Opiate of The Masses" or "Antitheism Is The Answer". Might stir things up, right? So the best policy, as the court notes and reason dictates, is to leave such opinions at the workplace door. My father told me that while he was in the Navy there was a rule at the officer's mess: no talk about politics, religion, or sex. That way they could eat in peace. For while our society and our Constitution does permit for a very broad and vibrant marketplace of divergent ideas, it is not necessarily good business to permit a free for all during the workday. In this way the court recognized a balancing of the teacher's right to believe in god with the broader society's right to have a peaceful, safe and nonconfontational work place/school.

--Nick Tepper, Esq.

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