According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, over 7,750 Black Lives Matter protests occurred during the summer of 2020. Since then, people from all walks of life have participated in countless more BLM protests to raise awareness about racial inequality and police brutality.
When employees exercise their right to protest in this way, can an employer fire them for it?
Most employment relationships in the United States are at-will, which means that either the employer or the employee can terminate employment at any time for any lawful reason. Employers may argue that they have the right to fire employees for attending BLM protests because it falls under their discretion.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Attending a BLM protest is an expression of one’s beliefs about racial equality and justice. Therefore, a court may consider firing an employee for participating in such a protest to be racial discrimination.
Legitimate business reasons
Employers might argue that they have legitimate business reasons to fire employees. They may have a case if an employee’s attendance at a protest did any of the following:
- Disrupted the employee’s work responsibilities
- Led to violations of company policies
- Affected the safety of coworkers
Employers must show that the decision was not motivated by discriminatory intent but rather by a valid business concern.
When considering whether you have suffered racial discrimination at work, remember that the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech, generally applies to government actions, not private employers, who have more leeway. However, discrimination based solely on race is always illegal, regardless of circumstances.