Sunday, October 14, 2012

When Does Free Speech Become Coercion?

You may have heard about the letter Florida time-share magnate David Siegel wrote to his thousands of employees, telling them that he'd have to fire them if Obama gets reelected. Or about southeast Ohio coal magnate Bob Murray, who required miners to attend a Romney rally, without pay. Not to mention what the Koch brothers have been up to on this front.

There are quite a number of other examples like this, and today's Up with Chris show featured a series of segments I recommend to everyone. New Republic reporter Alec MacGillis has been covering the Ohio stories, including one about my old friend Ben Suarez, he of the Canton, Ohio-based scam empire. Well, it turns out Suarez's company is under investigation by the FBI for either forcing employees to donate to Republican senate and congressional candidates or for funneling donations through his employees. Get this: middle class people, living in houses worth maybe $140,000, donating $20,000 in a single year to the two candidates. Riiiiiight.

Where is the line when it comes to free speech for employers to tell employees how to vote and whom to donate money to? What is coercion? Isn't threatening to fire or lay off people, in a general sense, coercion? But how could a ban on that be legislated?

The final segment of Up reviewed where that line is: Can an employer require employees to doorknock for a candidate? Can employees be required to attend propaganda sessions for or against a candidate? How would restrictions on those activities be different from restricting speech in the context of employment discrimination and harassment, for instance, or within labor laws like the Wagner Act (as weakly as those are enforced these days, they are still on the books)?

The final segment ends (at about the 7:10 mark) with Chris Hayes facetiously channeling his inner business mogul to commiserate about how powerless they must feel to only have one vote, no better than each of their employees. As the New Republic's MacGillis put it,

There's a real hopeful lesson in that: Your vote still counts. Those 100 coal company employees count 100 times as much as Bob Murray, and that's why it's so important for him to send this message out. Because on that day, as much as he's this sort of lord over southeastern Ohio -- it's almost a throw-back kind of a thing, where he's presiding over this entire part of the state, everyone owes their work or their livelihood to him -- on that day, he's just one vote and it really must kill these guys.

(I apologize for all the 30-second ads that play before each of these video segments. I found my mute button very effective in ignoring them.)

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