EEOC: Wearing Confederate Flag T-Shirts May Be “Hostile Work Environment Harassment”

From Dawson v. Donahoe (EEOC Feb. 8, 2012) (just uploaded onto Westlaw several days ago):

[A] claim of harassment is … actionable if the harassment to which Complainant has allegedly been subjected was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of Complainant’s employment….

In this case, Complainant has alleged that he notified the Postmaster as early as March 2011 of employees repeatedly wearing Confederate flag t-shirts to work, but it was not until May 2011, that the Postmaster finally instructed the supervisor to start sending the employees home to change. Complainant argues that the Postmaster “procrastinated in taking action on my complaint” and that he filed the complaint, in part, because of the Postmaster’s “lack of concern for my feelings associated with this matter.” Complainant explained that he was offended by the t-shirts because he saw the Confederate flag as a symbol of racism that evoked the history of slavery. Complainant also alleged that he is now fearful of one the employees he complained about because the employee has started parking his car off Agency properly and Complainant believes he might have a weapon in his car.

Based on the circumstances alleged by Complainant, we conclude that he has stated a viable claim of discriminatory harassment which requires further investigation…. [U]nder certain circumstances, a limited number of highly offensive slurs related to a federal employee’s race may in fact state a claim or support a finding of discrimination under Title VII. Moreover, Complainant has alleged that it took the Postmaster nearly two months to finally take action to stop his coworkers from wearing the offensive t-shirts….

This case involved a government employer, but the EEOC applies precisely the same standards — speech is actionable if it is “severe or pervasive” enough to create a hostile, abusive, or offensive work environment based on race, religion, sex, and so on for a plaintiff and for a reasonable person — to government employment as courts do to private employment. So under the EEOC’s reasoning, an employer must order its employees to stop wearing Confederate flag T-shirts whenever someone complains, or risk massive liability in court.

As I’ve argued before, hostile work environment harassment law suppresses a broad range of speech, including speech related to political, religious, social, or artistic matters. And when applied to what I call “one-to-many” speech (as opposed to speech that is said to one particular person), I think the law is unconstitutional: It involves the government, acting as sovereign, imposing a content-based and viewpoint-based restriction on people’s speech.

To be sure, a private employer has broad authority to restrict speech on its property (just as a private blog operator, service provider, commercial landlord, university, church, or homeowner has such authority). And a government employer has fairly broad such authority as well, for instance if it concludes that such speech sufficiently undermines the employer’s mission. But harassment law involves the government using legal coercion to pressure employers to restrict people’s speech; that’s where the strong First Amendment constraints on government action should come in. Much as I dislike displays of the Confederate flag, the First Amendment can’t allow the government to suppress them through the threat of legal liability.

In any event, this case, I think, helps illustrate my point. If the EEOC is right, then employers essentially have a legal duty to suppress Confederate flag displays whenever they are engaged in by an employee and a coworker is offended. Employers also have such a duty whenever they are engaged in by patrons and an employee is offended, since employers have a duty to prevent “hostile work environments” created by patrons. Bars and other places of public accommodation would also have a similar duty not to display Confederate flags and similar imagery, and to eject patrons who do the same, so long as a patron complaints that he is offended.

And of course the same could in principle apply not just to speech that is perceived as racist, but also speech that is perceived as anti-Islam, anti-Christianity, anti-Hispanic-immigrant, anti-women, anti-men, and so on. (See, e.g., the Tufts anti-Islam ad incident, Doe v. City of New York & Bruce Tefft, and Rodriguez v. Maricopa County Community College Dist..) “Hostile environment harassment law” is a serious and often unconstitutional threat to free speech, whether in workplaces — where most people spend a third of their waking hours — or universities or places of public accommodation; this incident is just the latest example.

UPDATE: Hans Bader (Open Market) has more.