Can you be fired for your political opinions?

The Florida-based Christian university, also known as PBAU, says it “equips students to grow in wisdom, lead with conviction and serve God boldly.” But English professor Sam Joeckel appears to have run afoul of those principles, at least as far as the school’s administrators are concerned. 

On March 15, after a complaint from a parent of a student, the university fired Joeckel. The professor said his dean told him he was “indoctrinating” his students by incorporating aspects of racial justice into an English composition class.

Joeckel, 51, had worked at the college for more than 20 years and said he had incorporated racial-justice issues into his classes for at least a dozen years. He had always submitted his course plan to his dean, he told MarketWatch in an interview. 

He said students could write a research essay taking either side, arguing that systemic racism was either real or not real. He said he typically received essays expressing both points of view. “It’s hard to talk about racial justice without talking about politics,” he said. “I think the two are intertwined. It’s the same with gender equality. The political is personal.”

He added: “I found it to be very fulfilling and rewarding work for most of my career. However, during those last few years, it was clear to me that the university had taken a hard turn to the right, and I believe I got caught up in that right turn.” 

His firing illustrates that employees are vulnerable if they express political opinions inside or even outside of work. The First Amendment does protect private-sector employees from being fired — it applies to government entities. And while Title VII of the Civil Rights Act covers six protected categories, including religion, sex and race, politics is not one of them.

This week, 700 celebrities signed an open letter, condemning Hamas. Many other people have criticized Israel’s policy on Gaza.

Some college graduates from Columbia and Harvard universities have had their job offers rescinded by law firms for criticizing Israel’s policy on Gaza in the wake of the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas terrorists in Israel. But people will continue to have strong opinions on the conflict: This week, 700 celebrities signed an open letter, condemning Hamas, and demanding the release of hostages being held in Gaza.

For someone like Joeckel, an English professor, it was hard to keep the real world out of his classes. He alleges that the Christian college where he worked has increasingly embraced right-wing political views, citing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s visit to the campus on Feb. 15, the day Joeckel says he was told his contract renewal would be delayed, pending a review of one of his classes. 

DeSantis, who is also running for the Republican nomination for president, has supported legislative measures to ban certain books from school libraries and has spoken about what he calls “woke indoctrination” in schools. He has expanded legislation restricting teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools and put limits on what Florida schools can teach about racism and U.S. history.

Joeckel’s firing illustrates the complex nature of employment law — which varies by state — and the scope of actions a private-sector employer has at its disposal if management does not agree with an employee’s social, cultural or political views. What’s more, his case also reveals that the employer and employee may even disagree about why the latter was fired in the first place.

‘Could you be fired for supporting Israel, and you could be fired for supporting Palstine? That question is tricky.’

— Gabe Roberts, Florida-based employment lawyer

A spokesperson for PBAU disputed Joeckel’s account of his firing, and said Joeckel had been on a faculty improvement plan since 2022 concerning a personnel matter. “We do not tolerate any form of racism, racial supremacy, ableism, or ethnic bigotry and strive to create a climate on campus in which all are respected,” the PBAU statement issued to MarketWatch read in part.

However, the university did say it approached Joeckel in February 2023 after a student’s parent raised concern “related to a 78-slide PowerPoint on racial-justice issues” Joeckel had used in one of his classes.

“Before any formal conversations with the school’s administration occurred during the requested meeting, Dr. Joeckel used his social media and the press to communicate a false assumption that his job was in jeopardy due to teaching racial justice,” the statement added.

Joeckel, for his part, said the university received bad publicity after his firing, and said the review of his racial-justice class and his politics surrounding other issues, including LGBTQ issues, was what actually led to his firing.

In 2022, Joeckel said he was accused of wearing a shirt with a gay-pride rainbow the previous year. “As I told the dean, my shirt did not have a gay-pride rainbow on it. It had the words ‘Love Trumps Hate’ on it,” he said. “The words were colorful, but they were not the colors of the gay pride flag.”

He said many of the complaints all centered on one issue — “the claim that I violated the university’s ‘policy on human sexuality.’” He describes himself as a cisgender straight man, and said he is “strongly and enthusiastically LGBTQ affirming.”

The university did not respond to a further request for comment on its stance on LGBTQ issues and whether they formed part of its overall policy on inclusion.

English professor Sam Joeckel said he was fired by Palm Beach Atlantic University for a lesson he gave his students in racial justice. His lawyer has filed a case with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

c/o Sam Joeckel

Job offers rescinded student statements on Hamas attack

The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom to assemble, among other rights — but it applies to government censorship and federal, state and local government employees. It does not apply to private-sector workers who make their opinions known on issues like Israel, Palestine or on political issues closer to home. 

“A lot of us did not listen in civics class, but if we did we would recall that First Amendment rights are related to governmental entities,” Lindsay Greene, partner at DSK Law and member of the LegalShield network of attorneys, told MarketWatch. “It prohibits a governmental entity from limiting or intruding on First Amendment rights, and that can include your employer if your employer is a governmental entity.”

The Civil Rights Act contains six protected classes: race; color; religion; sex, including pregnancy, sexual orientation and gender identity; national origin; age (for employees who are 40 or older); disability; and genetic information, including family medical history, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But it does not cover political speech or political affiliation.

With a presidential election looming in November 2024, employees who wish to tweet or express their views on Trump or Biden — assuming the presidential race features a rematch between former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden — may wish to think twice. And, yes, people have been fired for expressing their support for presidential candidates.

The National Labor Relations Act “protects the rights of employees to act together to address conditions at work, with or without a union,” but it does not address politics. It does, however, extend to workplace conversations related to workers’ conditions that may take place over Facebook

or Twitter.

Several law firms rescinded job offers to graduates who had signed letters or led organizations that criticized Israel’s policy on Gaza.

With an increasingly polarized political climate in the U.S. related to everything from immigration to what books are read in school, and the rise in geopolitical tensions after the terrorist attack by Hamas in Israel and Israel’s subsequent bombing of Gaza, employment-law attorneys warn employees to be careful what they publicly say, tweet and write. 

Former U.S. president Barack Obama this week expressed his views on Israel’s recent actions in Gaza: “The Israeli government’s decision to cut off food, water and electricity to a captive civilian population threatens not only to worsen a growing humanitarian crisis — it could further harden Palestinian attitudes for generations, erode global support for Israel, play into the hands of Israel’s enemies, and undermine long-term efforts to achieve peace and stability in the region.” The bottom line: If a person shared that comment on social media, they could find themselves in hot water with their employer.

Earlier this month, several prestigious law firms rescinded job offers to Harvard and Columbia graduates who had signed letters or led organizations that said Israeli policy was responsible for the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas terrorists, which killed more than 1,400 Israelis. Israel’s bombing of the Gaza Strip in recent weeks has killed 6,747 people, including 2,700 children, according to figures released this week by the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. (Those figures could not be independently verified.)

One of the law firms, Davis Polk, initially rescinded offers made to three students, but later said it was reconsidering that decision in relation to two of the students. “The views expressed in certain of the statements signed by law school student organizations in recent days are in direct contravention of our firm’s value system,” the firm said in a statement.

Another law firm, Winston & Strawn, also rescinded an employment offer to a New York University law student who wrote in a Student Bar Association newsletter that “Israel bears full responsibility” for the Hamas terrorist attack.

In a statement issued on Oct. 10, the firm said: “Today, Winston & Strawn learned that a former summer associate published certain inflammatory comments regarding Hamas’ recent terrorist attack on Israel and distributed it to the NYU Student Bar Association. These comments profoundly conflict with Winston & Strawn’s values as a firm. Accordingly, the firm has rescinded the law student’s offer of employment.”

The statement continued: “Winston stands in solidarity with Israel’s right to exist in peace and condemns Hamas and the violence and destruction it has ignited in the strongest terms possible. We look forward to continuing to work together to eradicate anti-Semitism in all forms and to the day when hatred, bigotry, and violence against all people have been eliminated.”

State laws vary on employee rights and political expression

Employees can be fired in the U.S. for their political opinions, and for expressing them. But the federal and state-level legal framework is a complex one, and an employer’s ability to fire a staffer without facing a wrongful-dismissal suit will also depend on the nature of the political speech and where it occurs.

“There are only a couple of states with state laws that prohibit discrimination based on political beliefs: New York, California and the District of Columbia,” said Davida S. Perry, a managing partner with Schwartz Perry & Heller LLP in New York City. Political beliefs are not protected under federal law.

If you are having political conversations, your rights will also be complicated by where you are employed and the nature of those political opinions. For instance, Florida is an at-will employment state, meaning you can be fired for any reason, or no reason at all. 

While California is also an employment-at-will state, California Labor Code Section 1101 states that no employer can prevent or forbid an employee from participating in politics, or from becoming a candidate for public office. “You cannot be fired for political activity or affiliations or for distributing political communications in California,” Greene said. 

Gerald Hathaway, a labor and employment lawyer and partner with Faegre Drinker, said New York state is an “emphatically” employment at-will state. “It’s one of the strongest in the country, which means you can fire whoever you want as long as you’re not in violation of a protected statute,” he said. 

However, Section 201-D of the New York State Labor Law prohibits discrimination based on “political activities outside of working hours, off of the employer’s premises and without the use of the employer’s equipment or other property.” Again, this state law applies to private-sector workers rather than federal employees.

Political statements and ‘associational discrimination’

But what if an employee in Florida engages in a political activity about someone subjected to unlawful discrimination? “That speech could be protected by the Civil Rights Act and the Florida Civil Rights Act,” Greene said.

Even if a state has no protections for employees who are fired for political expression, it gets complicated if their political opinions overlap with protected classes under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. 

Gabe Roberts, Jacksonville partner for the Scott Law Team, is taking a legal case against Palm Beach Atlantic University for the wrongful termination of Joeckel, the English professor, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. “There is an underlying political element to all of this, especially if you look at what DeSantis is doing in Florida in terms of education,” he said.

‘It’s hard to talk about racial justice without talking about politics. I think the two are intertwined. It’s the same with gender equality.’

— Sam Joeckel, who says he was fired for his views on racial justice and LGBTQ rights

“It’s not that he was terminated because of his race. It’s because of his advocacy and association for race in general that motivated his decision,’ Roberts said. 

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992 do not include political expression as a protected class. However, Joeckel’s racial-justice unit may contain “associational discrimination,” given that the English professor was discussing issues of race, which is a protected class under both pieces of legislation, Roberts said.

“There is nothing inherently protected about political views, whether you’re a Trump supporter or Biden supporter,” Roberts told MarketWatch. “Could you be fired for supporting Israel, and could you be fired for supporting Palstine? That question is tricky.”

Roberts gives some hypothetical examples: During the Trump administration, an employee is fired after complaining about building a border wall. “That alone would not necessarily be a cause of action, but if that employee is from Mexico or of Mexican descent, or the employee said these issues are important to them, that could trigger other protections,” he said.

In other words, Joeckel is a college professor and a white man who was teaching about racial justice. But his association with racial justice could, as Roberts sees it, mean his firing relates to a protected category. 

Roberts said he filed a charge of employment discrimination on behalf of Joeckel with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 

Joeckel is now teaching English as a second language at the Institute for Academic and Career English in North Palm Beach. “Immediately after it happened, my colleagues were saying, ‘I can’t believe that they did this,’” he said. “The next day, everyone was avoiding me. It was obvious they were looking the other way and going in the other direction.”

But his students, he said, were a revelation. “I had students reaching out to me from 18 years ago,” he added. “Last semester, I threw a party for my students because I never got a chance to say goodbye. They came to my house, and I received a lot of love from them. The stakes aren’t as high for the students. They can talk to me, and talk to me, they did.”

“University education is about wrestling with ideas,” he said, “but for the university, even presenting the ideas in the manner I presented them is unacceptable, and to me that is completely contrary to the idea of higher education. The only party guilty of indoctrination is  Palm Beach Atlantic University.”

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