Penn State's 1st Amendment Victims: We Need Freedom of Speech on the Job Too, Not Just at Home!

The real story of the Penn State child abuse scandal and coverup is not Joe Paterno or Penn State, or even the abuse of children, as vile as what happened to them is. What it’s about it the lack of basic freedom for workers in the United State of America to speak out.

On paper, we have one of the freest societies in the world. The First Amendment to the Constitution would appear to be pretty damned unequivocal, when it states:

“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.”

And yet, there are all kinds of laws that abridge freedom of speech and the right peaceably to assemble, as well as the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

We’ve all been witness lately to how municipal authorities, no doubt under pressure from the bankers and from the central government’s police and political authorities, have been “abridging,” with the aid of police wielding clubs, pepper spray and tear gas canisters, the supposed freedom of occupy movement activists to peaceably assemble.

What Penn State has done is expose an even bigger problem: the lack of freedom for workers to speak up or to petition for redress of grievances.
Free Speech stops at the workplace door in America, and we all pay the priceFree Speech stops at the workplace door in America, and we all pay the price

This boy-sex scandal has exposed the bitter truth that we Americans have no freedom of speech once we punch in to a job or walk into a place of work. And even when that place of work is a public university, where the management is really a part of the government of the state, we workers have no freedom to petition for redress. For speaking out, or for orally or in writing seeking redress for a grievance, an employee, whether it is a teaching assistant, a professor or a janitor, risks losing her or his job. Unless a worker is backed up by a union contract, she or he has no recourse to being fired for exercising free speech “rights,” and even with a union, it’s a tough fight defending against being fired for speaking out. (Employment rules at universities actually use the term “insubordination” to refer to talking back to managers, even in places like universities which are supposed to be places that encourage free inquiry and intellectual debate.)

Because of this lack of First Amendment freedom on the job, corruption, violation of laws and regulations, theft, discrimination, sexual abuse, favoritism and other problems run rampant in government, in universities, and in corporations.

People can criticize the janitors, and the teaching assistant at Penn State who reportedly stumbled upon rapes in progress of young boys in the Penn State gym, and can say they should have sprung to the rescue. But had any of them done this, when the alleged perpetrator was one of the most important coaches on a football team that is revered at, and that was generating millions of dollars in revenues for the university, those witnesses had to fear that they could lose their jobs–and probably would have lost them.

Some people might claim that would not have been a consideration for them had they been confronted with such a situation, but we can’t all be heroes, and it is hard to fault a janitor who just landed his job, and who was supporting a family, for not being so heroic, or to condemn a teaching assistant (perhaps one of the most vulnerable and tenuous of jobs at a university) at the mercy of administrators who can yank the position and its tuition benefits and pay on a whim, perhaps terminating a college career.

The same kind of dilemma confronts workers everywhere daily as they witness wrongdoing on the job.

Think how different the world might be today if lowly workers at Goldman Sachs or AIG or Lehman Brothers had had the protection of the First Amendment at those companies, and could have just picked up the phone without fear of punishment or firing and called a reporter or a prosecutor to tell about behavior like the shorting of derivatives that were simultaneously being touted to customers. Think for that matter how things might have played out at Enron a decade earlier, had workers felt secure in speaking out about the corruption there? Think how different things might be in the Gulf of Mexico, and of the lives that would have been saved, if employees who knew BP was cutting corners on safety in their Deepwater Horizon drilling had felt they could speak out about what was being done, without fear of losing their jobs?

When you come right down to it, the position of American workers on the job is little better than that of serfs on some lord’s estate. The vaunted freedoms we boast of to the rest of the world are actually limited to those few hours in the morning between the time we are brushing our teeth and the time we walk in the office door or factory gate, and the few hours in the evening between when we exit our place of employment and later pull up the covers to go to sleep (unless you count the time we spend dreaming at night). That and the weekend. And even then, it turns out that our freedom is severely limited: Woe to the employee who writes something critical about an employer on the internet on her or his own time, even on a privately-owned computer!

During the most important part of our lives — our waking, working hours — we have no First Amendment freedom at all. That’s why we periodically see “whistleblower” laws passed, designed to protect workers who speak up about wrongdoing, though these laws all end up being gutted or undermined later by the courts because, after all, the First Amendement itself has been so watered down when it comes to the workplace.

It’s terribly ironic really. The right-wing majority on the US Supreme Court recently ruled in a case called Citizens United, that corporations are virtual “persons” and have Freedom of Speech, but the same High Court has repeated held that the actual persons who work for them do not!

It is time to put an end to this oppression!

Freedom of speech, assembly and the right to petition for redress of grievances must be a 24/7 thing. The consequences of curtailing these freedoms are too great, as the families of the victims of Penn State’s athletic department can attest.