Did Google Cross the Line on Free Speech?

By now you probably know that Google senior software engineer James Damore recently penned a 10-page memo titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.” It argued that “men and women biologically differ in many ways … and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.”

Damore’s memo also argued that “personality differences” and “men’s higher drive for status,” as well as women’s lower tolerance for stress, might account for what’s perceived to be discrimination and the fact that there are fewer women in leadership roles in the tech world. The memo went onto say that Google’s attempts to address diversity were “unfair, divisive and bad for business.”

Beyond the fact that the memo resembles a poorly constructed academic paper, there’s a huge problem. Damore took aim at his employer and used company resources to share it, both internally and with the outside world. As a result, Damore was promptly fired by Google. The company issued a statement saying that the engineer violated the company’s rules by “advancing harmful gender stereotypes.”

Predictably, this set off a political firestorm. Conservatives, including the alt-right, argue that Google and the Silicon Valley have descended into mindless intolerance. Feminists and liberals, on the other hand, accuse those on the right of inserting bias and bigotry into public discussions, while at the same time claiming that their right to free speech is being abridged.

For better or for worse, we live in contentious times. Everyone has an opinion. But, make no mistake, Google acted legally in firing Damore. Employers have the right to prevent and punish speech that is political and divisive in nature. The issue isn’t really about free speech; it’s about what’s permissible in the workplace.

As Rob Wilson, president of human resources services firm Employco USA, points out: “Damore did not send this memo to his friends or family, or even post it on his own social media. He used company property to send this memo to his co-workers. This gives Google the grounds to fire him, as he is expressing controversial beliefs on company time and distracting his co-workers with his opinions.”

Wilson’s advice? “Employees need to be cognizant of the fact that free speech does not mean freedom from consequences. If your employer finds your opinions to be distracting and offensive to other employees, they are within their rights to reprimand you for this.”