Sure, everybody knows you can't shout "Fire" in a crowded theater, or otherwise use your "free speech" in such a way as to cause a panic, or to libel or slander somebody. But the reality is, in most private situations, you have no rights to free speech at all.
I've had this discussion with people on various online forums, particularly lately on YouTube, where somebody's posting (or even account) is deleted by the site moderators, and everybody gets up in arms about "Free Speech." The fact is, when you post to somebody else's web site, you are posting to their private property, and they set the rules of engagement.
The First Amendment only applies where and when the government is part of the equation. The point of the First Amendment is to say from the start that our government cannot tell you that you cannot say certain things. The point is to maintain a press and a public debate that is free from intervention and censorship from official sources. That's all. When you're in my house, I can tell you to shut up as much as I like, and you have no recourse but to leave.
And, when you're at work, you are at somebody else's "house." Can you be fired for what you say at work? Contrary to popular belief, you certainly can.
Speechless at work, posted on The American Prospect, is an excellent discussion of our lack of free speech (and other) rights in the workplace. The article is an interview with Bruce Barry, professor of management and sociology at Vanderbilt University, president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, and author of Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression In the American Workplace.
Why does Barry think that our lack of free speech rights in the workplace is such a serious problem?
"The problem is that the climate for free speech at work leaves employees with their rights as citizens and their job security in tension with one another. The pragmatist advice basically says hold onto your job and shut down the citizenship if it's going to get you in trouble. That kind of tension between citizenship and job security is not just bad because it might be nice to work in a freer workplace, it's bad because it has a harmful effect on the health of a democratic society. There may not be that many people getting fired for their bumper stickers or their blogs on a given day, but when it does happen, it has a chilling effect. We talk about the decline of civic engagement in this country, and I think this is a reason why."According to the article, "A 2001 AFL-CIO study revealed that 80 percent of employees believe it would be illegal for an employer to fire them for expressing political views that s/he disagrees with." If you are vocal about political issues on or off the job, you better hope that your boss is one of the misinformed who thinks you can't be fired.