Free speech in the workplace and racial name calling

This is intended to be a legal information question about US law not a GD. If you’ve got an non-legal opinion that’s great, but with all due respect what I’m looking for are facts about the current law and codes governing legal free speech vs illegal speech.

I was reading a thread in the Pit about someone’s racist boss making the comment that a certain employee was a “nigger” and that legal action was probably going to ensue because the boss called the employee that word. Many professions (including mine) have strict laws and sanctions against discrimination on the basis of race, creed or color etc, however, the pit thread did make me curious about where the dividing line is set between legal free speech and “illegal speech” in one on one personal interaction situations.

Companies are sued all the time for discriminatory behavior like red lining neighborhoods, non- promotion of minorities etc. while being as polite as peach pie in their public speech, and the illegality of this behavior is obvious.

As a flipside example, if a boss does not treat a minority employee any differently in the day in, day out of the workplace, (ie pay, promotions, etc track with non-minority employee stats) but one day the minority employee and the boss get into a pitched verbal battle over something and name calling on both sides escalates until the boss calls the employee a “nigger” in a fit of rage, can he be sued for violating that employees civil rights or are we getting into simple slander territory here?

Sorry I don’t have the facts for you but I think I have the notion behind this for you to ponder till the legal eagles swoop in with a definitive statement.

Free speech doesn’t mean that you can say anything anywhere. A business is a private endeavor and is regulated a thousand different ways. In the interest of society the courts seem to have found it permissable to say that it is wrong to create a hostile workplace.

That said you are free to stand in your front yard and spout all the vitriol you wish without breaking the law (as long as you don’t incite to riot).

I am not a US lawyer, but I agree that speech in the workplace by the boss is not simply the expression of opinion. It is the display and, often, the exercise of power and authority; employees are affected by it in a way that they are not affected by a street-corner orator. Creating a climate of racial intolerance in the workplace is not protected free speech merely because speech is the mechanism used to create that climate.

I would guess that a legal action based on the fact that the boss called an employee a “nigger” is not going to succeed simply by establishing that the word was uttered; it will be necessary to show that it had the effect of abridging the employee’s civil rights in some way. But given the power relationship between boss and employees, this may not be too difficult to show.

The issue isn’t that boss is calling his employee a nig, although the inflamatory racial nature of the expression just makes it worse. The issue is that the boss is being abusive and that he and the employee are not on equal terms.

Managers are expected to behave in a professional manner. It is not appropriate for somone who has the power to hire, fire or promote someone to be abusive to subordinates. If the positions were reversed, what do you think would happen if the employee talked to his boss that way?

I don’t care how mad a person (especially a manager who is supposed to be educated) gets. If you need to use the term “nigger” to motivate your employees, go build a time machine and manage a pre Civil War cotton plantation.

Still looking for legal opinion(s) and/or relevant law citations as to whether this described scenario is a civil rights or a slander issue.

Well, it’s unlikely to be slander. Mere vulgar name-calling is not slander. And something which is said to the employee himself and to no-one else cannot be slander either.

The offending statement would have to be something which would cause ordinary right-thinking people to think less of the individual concerned. And the statement would have to be heard by someone other than the individual concerned.