Is Being a White Supremacist Grounds for Firing?

Americans are pressuring employers to prove that hate speech has real consequences.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

After white nationalists descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia, a Twitter account with the handle @YesYoureRacist began soliciting the identities of rally goers based on photographs. “If you recognize any of the Nazis marching in #Charlottesville, send me their names/profiles and I'll make them famous,” the account tweeted. And by famous, the user of course meant infamous.

The strategy of exposing the faces of rally attendees to hundreds of thousands of people on Twitter worked, and many were identified. By Sunday, one of those whose name and place of residence had been revealed had reportedly been fired from his job at Top Dog, a hot dog restaurant in Berkeley, California, according to Berkleyside. (A call to Top Dog went unanswered.)

The strategy that ultimately got Cole White, the man who lost his job after being identified via social media, fired directed a mix of public shaming and economic pressure not at him, per se, but toward his employer. It took only a few hours for internet users to come up with an identification, where he was from, and where he worked and then to start calling on Top Dog to let him go. That’s certainly not a brand new tactic, but it’s a variety of vigilantism to which social media is particularly well suited, finding and disseminating information and amplifying calls to action far beyond what would be possible within a single geographic community. After the news broke that White had been fired, many who had participated tweeted delighted responses. ”Awesome! We must shame them into oblivion,” wrote one user.

It's not merely that Cole White lost his job. The website GoDaddy has bounced the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer off its servers, and the University of Nevada, Reno, has released a statement condemning racism and white supremacy after it became clear that one of its students had participated in the rally. All of these cases indicate that there is real pushback against the trend that my colleague Matt Thompson described over the weekend: that white supremacists feel increasingly comfortable expressing their views in public fora. This is certainly true, but apparently they can't do so with impunity: The hoods may be off, but the torchbearers may not have jobs to come back to on Monday. The efforts to push employers to fire the offending employees are an example of how the public—but, importantly, not the government—can strengthen the norms against these ideas, attach a stigma to them, and try to move society away from them.

Of course, the consequence of this dynamic is that taboo political ideas of all stripes can lead to workplace sanctions. While many on the political left are now lauding firings as a way to hold white supremacists accountable, it’s also worth remembering that pressuring employers to sever ties based on political activities, or social and racial beliefs, has historically been targeted in the other direction. McCarthyism involved reporting Communists and Communist sympathizers and pushing them out of the workforce, and Hollywood in particular. And as Walter Greason, a historian and professor at Monmouth University said in an interview, “Historically it's more dangerous as an employee to be associated with racial justice and the NAACP, than it was to be affiliated with the KKK.”

More recently, the dynamics have shifted somewhat with the advent of the internet. Perhaps most memorably, there’s the incident of a public-relations professional who made a racist joke about AIDS while boarding a flight to South Africa. While in the air, the tweet went viral, leading outraged internet users to not just ridicule her, but to direct attention at her employer as well. Countless onlookers waited for her to land and learn of her dismissal. While the offense at the root of these firings is different, the viral and Google-able nature of the internet means that the consequences of such terminations are long-lasting: Not only does a person lose his or her job, but the entire incident will forever be tied to their name for all to see.

In many cases, firing someone for their political ideas raises few legal issues. Though public-sector workers can’t be terminated for their political views, and many union contracts require that an employer demonstrate “just cause” for firing someone, federal law doesn’t offer any protections for expressing political views or participating in political activities for those who work in the private sector and don’t have a contract stating otherwise, according to Katherine Stone, a law professor at UCLA who focuses on labor law. (There are a few caveats for those in states or municipalities with laws that go beyond the federal mandate.) But more to the point, Stone says, it’s not at all uncommon—or illegal—for private-sector workers to get fired for what they do in their free time if it reflects poorly on their employer. In cases such as this, an employer in the private sector simply isn’t required to employ someone who exercises their right to free speech, Stone says.

The history of job termination as a means of punishing those who advocate for unpopular political or social causes during their free time makes Walter Greason, the historian at Monmouth University, wary of its use now. But he does believe that employers have a responsibility when it comes to selecting, hiring, and educating employees. Greason says that while firing someone for associating with a white supremacist group may provide a quick fix, “those folks are then sent out into the world without any means of changing, [and] they connect with others who share that same hate.”

That’s certainly true: Firing someone for their racist ideas is unlikely to make them less racist. But it's also true that the public, with the business community as its actor, often has the right to use its power to reject some ideas and ideologies. And doing so is part of the messy, haphazard process by which the country decides what the future will look like.