Masking your political views
Whole Foods case raises classic free speech debate
AT THE WASHINGTON POST, owned by bazillionaire Jeff Bezos, the slogan adopted shortly after President Trump took office proclaims, “Democracy dies in darkness.”
At Whole Foods supermarkets, which Bezos also owns, it apparently dies at the checkout counter, or while stocking the produce displays. At least that seems to be the case for certain expressions of democracy.
A lawsuit filed on Monday on behalf of workers at Whole Foods stores in four states, including Massachusetts, says the company retaliated against employees wearing facemasks reading “Black Lives Matter.” One of the plaintiffs says she was fired over the issue when she organized fellow workers to defy company orders and wear masks supporting the burgeoning movement around race issues.
Whole Foods denies that, saying Savannah Kinzer was terminated for violating the company’s time and attendance policies and missing shifts. The company says it is simply enforcing a policy against workers displaying any slogans, logos, or messages while on the job that aren’t company-related.
The irony — or hypocrisy — of the company’s position, says the lawsuit, is that Whole Foods and its parent company, Amazon, “had each posted online messages supporting Black Lives Matter and condemning racism,” reports the New York Times.
“So many companies today are doing everything they can to profess how progressive they are… but when it actually comes to letting their employees express these same sentiments they get muzzled,” Shannon Liss-Riordan, the Boston attorney who filed the suit on behalf of Whole Foods workers, told the BBC.
Corporate America has not responded uniformly to the surge of public expressions of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which has taken off in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.
Starbucks announced last month that it would allow employees to wear “Black Lives Matter” pins or shirts, reversing a previous policy that had been in place, according to the Times, because the company said the slogan could “amplify divisiveness.” Other companies, including Chick-fil-A and Costco, have maintained policies against employees displaying the slogan.Employers generally enjoy a fair degree of control over what takes place on the job. Workers at Whole Foods may not have an organic right to showcase their political views. But if the company is allowing some expressions but not others, that seems like a policy destined for an expiration date in court.
A Boston Herald editorial wonders whether companies want their stores and other workplaces “to become soapboxes for personal and political expression.” Imagine the liberal feathers that would be ruffled by a cashier wearing a MAGA hat at the Cambridge Whole Foods that is the Massachusetts store cited in the lawsuit. “There really can’t be a some-but-not-all approach” to which views are permitted, says the Herald.