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.