Copyright ©2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LYNN NEARY, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan. Political junkies love the paraphernalia of politics, buttons and bumper stickers that tell everyone exactly where they stand. But are such displays appropriate in the workplace? With feelings about this year's presidential election running high, that's the question that has been raised in more that one office, factory, or classroom. Some employers have even banned all talk of politics.

Later, who did you watch last night's debate with, people who agree with you or more of a mixed bag? But first, what's happening where you work? Where do you draw the line on politics in the office? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. The email address, talk@npr.org, and you can comment on our blog, it's at npr/org/blogofthenation.

And we begin with Joel Klein. He's chancellor of the Department of Education in New York City. Good to have you with us, Mr. Klein.

Mr. JOEL KLEIN (Chancellor, Department of Education, New York): Good to be with you, Lynn.

NEARY: Now two weeks ago, you dealt with this issue of politics in the workplace by sending a memo to school principals directing them to enforce what was a really longstanding policy, and it requires that teachers show complete neutrality. Those are the words at work. So that would mean, for example, they can't wear a campaign button in the classroom. But why, if it's a longstanding policy, why the need to enforce it now, at this time?

Mr. KLEIN: Well, we did it because the union has sent around a lot of buttons for their teachers and told them that they were free to wear their buttons, and we wanted to make sure that politics don't enter the classroom, and that's what our concern is. You know, our kids are every age from five to 20, and some of them vote, some of them are very young. And we thought, just want to make it clear that obviously, teachers should be involved politically in every way they want when they're not teaching our children, but when they're teaching our children, that's a time for political neutrality. And I frankly think every parent I've talked to agrees with that view.

NEARY: Now, the teachers' union has filed a law suit contending that this violates their right to free speech. Doesn't it?

Mr. KLEIN: I don't think so. Again, I think, you know, you have lots of free speech rights as a teacher, and you ought to be expressing them at union meetings and certainly you ought to feel free to campaign for or work for any candidate of your choice. But when you're teaching kids, I don't think that you have the same free speech rights. For example, do we want teachers in the classroom proselytizing what you could do outside the classroom. But proselytizing for a candidate, or teachers who are opposed to abortion rights wearing buttons that say Abortion Kills, I don't think anybody thinks that that's a good idea, and I don't think it has, ultimately, anything to do with the First Amendment.

I think what it has to do with is if it's really the role of a teacher, in which the teacher ought to be neutral. She can talk to the kids, obviously, about the election, talk to them about the debate last night, talk to them about what issues they think are important to the nation. But for the teacher to put her or his finger or a thumb on the scale and say, but I'm for Obama or I'm for McCain, and let's have a discussion about the debate, I think that can have a really unfortunate effect.

Think about for young kids. I mean, if your father is for one candidate and your teacher is for another candidate, are those issues that we really want to inject into the schoolroom? So I think the wise view is that we keep politics out of the classroom. I think we'll all be better off with that.

NEARY: I think that the teachers are arguing that in fact the classroom is actually a good place to teach kids about democracy, about elections, and that by demonstrating that it's important to them, this is a lesson for the kids.

Mr. KLEIN: Oh, I think it's a great opportunity. You know, I've done this in schools through out my city where I've talked to kids about democracy, elections, the importance of elections, the importance of the right to vote, what that's really all about. But I actually think you undermine such a discussion by saying, and I support this particular candidate. I don't see how that furthers the discussion. I think that's really counterproductive.

And again, do we really want teachers in the classroom saying things that they're totally free to say in any other venue? I mean, do we want teachers in the classroom saying things like, I'm for abortion rights, I'm against abortion rights, I'm for this, I'm against this. I mean, these are young kids. Your job is to teach and instruct them. Your job is not to indoctrinate them to any political view. And in fact, I think the core of democracy is to have an informed citizenry and have teachers who are scrupulously neutral. You know, it's a little bit like newspeople. I mean, people in the media are not supposed to be wearing their buttons on television when they're talking about what's going on in the race because what you're tying to do is create an environment in which people are perceived to be calling the balls and strikes as they see them, and not basically trying to opt for one side or the other.

NEARY: So you don't think that a teacher can actually have a neutral discussion with their kids about the election at all if the kids know who they're for.

Mr. KLEIN: I think it undermines it, sure. And again, think about it this way. If I know one of my teachers is strongly for one candidate, and I feel differently, and I'm strongly against it, which, in democracy, this happens all the time. And my teacher says, well, this is what I think and why I'm for this particular candidate, and then my response is going to be, well, I think that that's crazy. I totally disagree with that. And this is the same person who is going to grade me every week. I mean, why do we want this? What would be - tell me the positive good in any of it. I mean, for my entire life, whatever my politics were, I sure didn't want my children having their politics influenced by the particular views of their teachers.

NEARY: I guess the one question I have left, though, about this, is the moment at which you've decided to enforce this policy, and I gather it hasn't really been enforced in the past, so what is about this election time and this particular election? Is there something about this particular election?

Mr. KLEIN: The only reason we say we haven't enforced it, I mean, we have politicians and others, there's all sorts of people who want to use the schools for political purposes, and we've consistently enforced it. This is the first time I heard about teachers wearing buttons, and in part it's because the union made a concerted effort to get all the buttons out there for the candidate that they supported, and a number of my principals called and said, is this something that's a good idea? Are we required to allow people to wear buttons?

This is an organized effort, and I think that's what brought it to my particular attention, but it had nothing to do with the timing or anything like that. Or in fact, you know, my strong view is that teachers outside the classroom ought to be vocal and active participants in the democratic process.

NEARY: What's the status of the lawsuit? And can it be resolved before the elections?

Mr. KLEIN: I hope so. It's before the judge. The judge is ruling on a preliminary injunction that the union sought. They had arguments on Tuesday morning of this week, and we expect in short order to get a decision from the judge. And of course, our hope is that we get a decision that keeps the classroom politically neutral.

NEARY: All right, thanks so much for joining us today, Mr. Klein.

Mr. KLEIN: Thank you.

NEARY: Joe Klein is chancellor of New York City's Department of Education. He spoke to us on the phone from New York City. And joining us now is Stacey Adams. She's an employment lawyer with the law firm, Littler Mendelson, in Newark, New Jersey, and she joins us from the studios of member station WBGO in Newark. Thanks for being with us, Stacey.

Ms. STACEY ADAMS (Employment Lawyer, Littler Mendelson, Newark, New Jersey): Thank you. Nice to be here.

NEARY: Let's just follow up on the conversation we just had about politics in public schools, and then we're going to broaden the discussion beyond that. But what does the law say about the right to free speech in public schools?

Ms. ADAMS: Generally speaking, it's a balancing test, and there are different positions that are taken if you're dealing with a student wearing a button versus a teacher. And the issue with a teacher or a member of the faculty wearing a button or a T-shirt or something and taking a stance in favor of a particular candidate is that that might be seen as having the school's stamp of approval on it. Which could, of course, mean that the school is endorsing a particular candidate versus another candidate, which is problematic.

NEARY: What about students?

Ms. ADAMS: Students can be, in certain instances, permitted to wear buttons or the seminal case on this subject involved black armbands during the Vietnam War, but they are not permitted to do any sort of activity like that if it becomes materially disruptive to the school, if it involves substantial or creates substantial disorder within the school or if it invades the rights of others, which is sort of the larger issue that we're seeing in connection with the current election.

NEARY: What about private companies? We've been talking about schools so far. Of course, they are funded by taxpayer's dollars. Are the issues different? Is the law different when you're talking about private business?

Ms. ADAMS: Absolutely. The First Amendment, generally speaking, is not applicable in the private context, so private employers have a much greater right to limit the types of speech that go on in their workplace.

NEARY: Now, in a case of a New York City public school system, as we heard, there was a policy in place that made it very clear what was acceptable, what wasn't. Of course, that is now (unintelligible).

NEARY: Go ahead.

TIM (Caller): I was in a company - a very small company, and we would eat with the owners in the lunchroom quite often, and on several occasions they expressed their views supporting the current Bush administration, which I profoundly disagree with. And I felt intimidated about expressing my views because of the power relationship - the hiring-firing power that the owners had over my position. And I would have much preferred if they would have said something like, well, you know, we have our political views but that doesn't affect here in the workplace. You have the right to express whatever you want, and I don't want my statements to make you feel nervous about your job. It seems like they were clueless about that power relationship and how somebody might feel about expressing their own differing views.

NEARY: Were you - did you feel that you had to eat lunch with them? Was this - or did you have a choice there at all?

TIM: No. It was a choice. There is one - only one small lunchroom, though, and you can overhear everything that's happening or people are conversing with each other.

NEARY: Oh, I see what you're saying. Tim, if you can hold on, we're going to take a short break and I'm going to ask Stacey to respond to your call when we come back. We are talking about politics in the workplace. If you'd like to give us a call, the number is 800-989-8255. I'm Lynn Neary. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is Talk Of The Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. We're talking about politics at work and where you draw the line. One survey found that two-thirds of workers felt it's OK to talk politics in the office, but with conversations getting testy on both sides, many employers disagree. We're going to talk to one of them in a moment. And how does your company handle this? We want to hear from employees and bosses today. In your workplace, where do you draw the line on politics? Does your company have a policy against it? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. And the email address is talk@npr.org.

Stacey Adams is with us. She is an employment lawyer with the law firm, Littler Mendelson, in Newark, New Jersey, and on the line is Tim from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Before the break, Stacey, Tim was expressing concern that he had regarding the fact that during lunchtime his bosses would talk politics, and he was very uncomfortable with that.

Ms. ADAMS: I think that Tim's concern is exactly the type of issue that warrants having some sort of policy in place prohibiting any type of political talk, particularly when you're dealing with a supervisor, or in this case, the owner of a company. It may be perceived as some pressure on employees to vote a specific way, and actually, certain states have statutes on the books that prohibit employers from interfering with political activity or pressuring an employee to vote towards a specific candidate. So the types of issues raised by Tim are exactly where the concern is.

NEARY: Tim, just one more question for you before you go, and that is, did you ever talk to your employers about this, or were you really just too intimidated even to raise the subject?

TIM: No. I didn't raise the subject. I didn't feel like they were trying to intimidate anyone. I felt a little, just, you know, by-the-way type conversation, you know, something that was just happening on the lunch hour. But I think that they were just unaware of how they're - you know, how much power that they have in terms of hiring and firing and things like that, and how that would affect something like people expressing their views in that area.

NEARY: So it's just - they were being insensitive or they were kind of unconscious of the effect they were having, really.

TIM: Not necessarily - yeah, maybe. I'd say maybe more unconscious of it but the fact is, it does have an effect, and if you're an employer, you know that you have this power relationship with an employee, and I think some of these people who are the owners of the company had never actually worked for anyone else. They always owned the company. Maybe they had no perception of what it's like to work for someone else and to have your job in jeopardy by behaving in certain ways or saying certain things that disagree with what the boss or the owner said.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for your call, Tim.

TIM: And I'd like to add that I think even the law in the books would not make someone feel that much more comfortable about expressing their views in a situation where the owners or the bosses are clearly on one side of the political sense or the other. I think it's more of a matter of, am I going to keep my job if I say something or do I need to just shut up?

NEARY: OK. All right. Thanks for your call, Tim.

TIM: Thank you.

NEARY: What do think about that, Stacey? He was saying that he doesn't even think maybe a written policy would make the situation OK.

Ms. ADAMS: I understand that from a practical perspective. I will say, though, that the employees can take some comfort in the fact that if they were to be terminated or disciplined in some way because they took a view or a position that was contrary to the position of the owners of a company, they would have a means of filing a lawsuit to challenge that disciplinary action or that adverse employment action if they believed that it was based on their political beliefs.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call now from Susan in Wilmington, North Carolina. Hi, Susan.

SUSAN (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call.

NEARY: You're welcome. Go right ahead.

SUSAN: Actually, today while I was at work, my supervisor asked me to call around to a couple of restaurants to compare lunch prices on a fundraiser for a local office that was running, you know, someone that he's supporting and, you know, on company time he's asking me to, you know, call these restaurants for him in support of his political belief.

NEARY: And did that make you uncomfortable?

SUSAN: It made me very uncomfortable. I just felt like I shouldn't be doing that on, you know, office time. That should be something that he would have taken care of on his own time. And no matter who the candidate was, you know, whether or not I agreed with him or disagreed with him, it was just inappropriate, I felt.

NEARY: Stacey, is that completely inappropriate? I mean, should that - I mean, obviously, if you're working, you know, in a public - in a government situation, for instance, you couldn't do that, but I'm assuming this is a private business.

SUSAN: Yes. I work at a doctor's office.

Ms. ADAMS: I think it depends on the type of business and the position taken by the company. So if you're talking about a supervisor, for example, who is doing this even though that's not necessarily something that's endorsed by the company, then that's, of course, improper use of work time and work resources towards something that's not company supported.

I think the answer might be different if you have a company which takes a political position. For example, I'm sure it wouldn't be surprising for you to hear that companies endorse or lobby a certain way because it will be beneficial towards the business. And I think the problem that you run into in that situation is that you will have employees that feel uncomfortable because they take a different position. And there have even been cases where certain employees have been asked to engage in lobbying efforts that benefit their employer and refuse to do so, and challenged, they're discharged under one of these statutes successfully.

NEARLY: All right. Thanks so much for you call, Susan.

SUSAN: Thank you.

NEARY: I want to bring another guest into this discussion now. Andrew Ambrose is a partner in a small IT service company in Minneapolis, and he is joining us on the line from Minnetonka, Minnesota. Good to have with us, Andrew.

Mr. ANDREW AMBROSE (Partner, Computer Zone, Minnesota): Hi, Lynn. How are you?

NEARY: Now, I know you found yourself in a somewhat uncomfortable situation during this campaign, a situation between two of your employees who were talking politics. Just tell us what happened.

Mr. AMBROSE: Well, the situation is, we are an IT company. We service other clients. So what happens is it's a small environment. It's like a 12-person office. So we work together and we work together to resolve issues for our clients. So if one person is taking one side and the other one is obviously taking the Republican and one of the other - the second employee is a Democrat, and he's - you know, and so what happens is they have their own view, and this - especially this year, it's very heated for those arguments. They're not - you know, it's a lot more important, it seems like, but for each one of them.

And so what happens is when they start talking about topics, then that gets to become a problem for me because then eventually what happened is they started not talking to each other about the client problem that we have. We work together to resolve issues for our clients. If they cannot deal with that, you know, if they cannot deal past that politic stuff, you know, that they have their own views, now that becomes a problem for me.

NEARY: So what did you do? How did you resolve it?

Mr. AMBROSE: Well, what I had to do is I had to tell them to, you know, leave this stuff - the politics stuff outside of the office, because I mean, if they cannot resolve the issues for our clients, then that's going to impact our business.

NEARY: So you pretty much banned all talk of politics from coming up.

Mr. AMBROSE: Yeah. I told them, you know, if you can't act as a professional or in a professional or a mature manner, then we don't need to deal or discuss this. I mean, this is not like during lunchtime, like this is during the office hours. We are a small office, so we all - sort of it's a small office space where we're sitting together. So while they're going to, you know, the coffeepot or to the bathroom or they sit around and talk and just throughout the day and that - you know, it depends on what's happening in the media, right? It just creates a conversation and that becomes a problem.

So we had to pretty much - we don't have anything in our, you know, employee manual that says we can't talk about this stuff because I don't think that's the - we didn't even think about putting something like that. I don't think it needs...

NEARY: Did these employees feel like you were violating their rights to - the right to free speech? Did they push back at all against you?

Mr. AMBROSE: No.

NEARY: No.

Mr. AMBROSE: Because I think pretty much they understand that - because now, well, you know, what happened is that one of the person has to help us get the share of the other one as a field consultant, so they work together. The calls come into the office to help this person handle that, and then he escalates it to the network administrator or the consultant, so if they cannot work together then this is a problem. Now they have - they have a heated argument, now they're not talking to each other. Now that becomes a problem for business, and now that's where we had to - when I had to say, you know what, this is getting out of hand.

NEARY: And this election year is the first time this has really come up. I mean, because this election is so intense, you think?

Mr. AMBROSE: Exactly. I mean, I got two calls from other states asking who am I voting for. I'm like, are you serious?

NEARY: Aha.

Mr. AMBROSE: I mean, that's how intense. I mean, these guys never call me about that in the past, and this year I got two - one call just came in, and the other one is an email saying, hey, who are you voting for? And here is some reasons why you should vote for so and so. And I'm like, that's, you know, I mean, that's how bad this - I mean, that's how important this...

NEARY: All right. So how - what's the atmosphere in the office right now? How's it going?

Mr. AMBROSE: No, it's fine, actually. One of the employees is no longer there. It had nothing to do with this situation but - so the situation is, you know, completely calm. There's no issue at all at the office. So everything is calm. I mean, and now we take it that - actually, I don't encourage them discussing this stuff. If I'm there while they are discussing things, I just sort of just kind of push it out of the way so we move back to work instead of talking about politics and their views. And what happens is one is very quite, but he is very opinionated. And the other one is very loud and very opinionated, so it's kind of....

NEARY: Well, let's see what happens now after the election.

Mr. AMBROSE: Well, that's a whole other story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Right.

Mr. AMBROSE: And I know who's going to - I mean, the thing is I'm not enforcing one way or the other, I just stay out of these issues. But what happens is I know who - in the office, who is going to vote with what direction. So I mean, it is kind of a divided place.

NEARY: That's interesting.

Mr. AMBROSE: You know, one of the employee's husband is a military personnel. So I mean, there's a lot of things factored into this, and they have their own view. And we're not, as an employer, you know, we're not forcing them one way or the other. It's just - you know, it's their choice, right?

NEARY: Right. Well, Andrew, thanks so much for joining us today.

Mr. AMBROSE: I appreciate it, Lynn. I'll talk to you when we hear the rest of the show. It's an interesting show, actually.

NEARY: OK. Andrew Ambrose is a partner in Computer Zone. That's an IT service company in Minneapolis, and he spoke to us on the line from Minnetonka, Minnesota. We're going to take a call now from Tara(ph), and Tara is calling from Michigan. Hi, Tara.

TARA (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Hi. Go ahead.

TARA: Thanks for taking my call. I work for a company in Michigan that's privately owned that has put up a ban on us wearing buttons. And actually, a ban about us talking completely about politics to any of our customers or anything like that. Yesterday, during - I worked yesterday before the debate had taken place, and I was asking our customer if they were going to be watching the debate later that night, and the supervisor had come over and told me that we needed to not be asking those questions.

NEARY: So you couldn't even ask - you weren't even expressing an opinion. You were just saying, hey, are you watching the debate? And they said that's out.

TARA: Yeah. Yeah. I think it's overstepping a boundary. I don't think they should be able (unintelligible).

Ms. ADAMS: (unintelligible) set of rules that apply to entities that deal with the public service sector, and it's very important to those entities not to put the company's stamp of approval on a particular candidate. And if their employees - from their cashiers to sales employees on the floor - are endorsing a specific candidate, that could be read as the company endorsing a specific candidate. So I think that banning that sort of wearing of buttons would be appropriate.

As far as difference between a breast cancer ribbon and, for example, a political button, I would say that policy should be neutral and generally drawn so that, for example, in the public service industry, where maybe there's a dress code, perhaps you have to wear, you know, a white T-shirt and black pants, no buttons should be allowed and no ribbon should be allowed because you want to keep the policies as neutral as possible.

NEARY: What about the - one other issue that she also raised that was interesting was that she wasn't expressing an opinion. She was just saying, are you going to watch the debates tonight? And they told her she couldn't do that. That seems a little extreme to me.

Ms. ADAMS: Yeah. That actually seems a little extreme to me, as well. And what I suspect happened is that a supervisor was given a fairly general instruction not to allow political talk and perhaps took it one step too far in exercising an abundance of caution, but that does seem a little extreme to me, as well.

NEARY: All right, OK. Thanks for your call, Tara. And we're going to go to Jennifer now. And Jennifer is calling from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Hi, Jennifer.

JENNIFER (Caller): Hi. Can you hear me?

NEARY: I can. Go ahead.

JENNIFER: OK, great. Well, I was calling in because my husband and I run a small company in North Carolina, and we have about a hundred employees, and we really have begun operating about 11 years ago with the belief that it's important for all of our employees to really be engaged and aware citizens. And so we have luncheon learns throughout the year on all kinds of different topics. But around the election time, both in the primaries and in the national elections, we really believe that politics should be talked about, so we have done sort of an employee-driven way of having conversations.

Any employee can bring in either local or state candidates who are running, and they can have 30 minutes. And we've had, actually, Bev Purdue from - who's running for governor. We've had some senatorial people, state and U.S. Senate people who are running.

And we've also had them do employee-driven conversations where they've had four sessions with two employees who headed up the whole thing, and they had conversations both on - let's see - energy, education, health care, economy, and we had employees from each side, you know, research all of the issues in the platform and they presented them, and any employee who wanted to come could come. And they asked questions, and they learned about the issues. And we find that when we have things fostered in a really disciplined but civil way, we get people feeling much better about talking about it and it doesn't become as heated, but people become educated and engaged.

NEARY: But do you also encourage or allow, let's say - since that's part of what we're talking about - people to have sort of informal conversations about this, as well?

JENNIFER: Oh, yes. Absolutely. As long as it remain civil and it's not as much emotion as it might be facts or opinions being brought to the conversation.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Jennifer. An interesting and a different approach to this, Stacey.

Ms. ADAMS: Yeah. If Jennifer was my client, I would probably strongly advise her against doing what she's doing.

NEARY: Oh, really. Why is that?

Ms. ADAMS: Because I think that there's a lot of potential for problems, even if it's done during non-work activities such as lunchtime. I think that if one candidate endorses particular views which are deemed offensive to another candidate - oh, I'm sorry - to other employees, that could present a problem. If one candidate is brought in by example with supervisor, are other employees going to feel compelled to go because if they don't, their supervisor might look disfavorably upon them?

NEARY: All right. We're going to have to stop right there, Stacey. But...

Ms. ADAMS: OK.

NEARY: That's interesting to hear that advice, and we appreciate you coming in today. Stacey Adams is an employment lawyer with the law firm, Littler Mendelson. She joined us from the studios of member WBGO in Newark, New Jersey. I'm Lynn Neary. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.