FAQ: Tech Worker Free Speech Rights

(U.S. Version - Jan. 25, 2024)

Tech for Palestine's main goal is to shift the window of discourse, and make it easier to speak up for Palestinian humanity and freedom, while making it harder to make the sort of genocidal statements about Palestine that are currently common among tech investors and leaders. We encourage tech workers to speak up. Understanding your rights is an important part of that decision, so we’ve put together this FAQ for U.S. tech workers. (Disclaimer: we recommend reaching out to a lawyer for more specific legal advice.)

Keep in mind that you don’t have absolute free speech rights at work, because the First Amendment only protects you from government overreach, not from actions by private employers. That’s why some answers below depend on other things– like what state you live in, who you are, and whether you’re speaking up about things happening at work rather than in Israel/Palestine. But there are still many ways to speak up!

1.    Can I discuss Palestine at work? Can I display a Palestinian flag at work?

You can— if your employer does not ban political discussions or symbols at work. Check your employee handbook and ask HR if it’s not clear. 

2.    Can my employer allow people to display Israeli symbols but ban Palestinian symbols?

No. If your employer is not consistent in the way it enforces policies banning political communication, that differential treatment suggests discrimination. 

3.    Can my employer hold pro-Israel meetings? (Do I have to go?)

Your employer is allowed to hold meetings about their political opinions. Your rights depend on where you live. Some states (such as New York and California) prohibit your employer from retaliating against you if you refuse to attend mandatory meetings that are primarily about your employer’s political opinions. Check with a lawyer on this one.

4.   Can executives at my company say racist things about Palestinians?

No. If anyone at your company, no matter how high up, says things like “subhuman savagery, is intrinsic to the culture” of Palestinians (unfortunately, a real quote) or other racist things, that's discriminatory. If they do so repeatedly, they are illegally creating a hostile work environment.  ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

5.    I’m Palestinian. What else should I know?

Employers cannot discriminate against you based on your race or national origin. So if your employer claims they are disciplining or firing you because of your political speech, but you think they are treating you more harshly because you are Palestinian, you should talk to a lawyer. 

Unfairly privileging other groups is discrimination, too. So if your employer provides counseling or extra time off as accommodations for Israeli employees in the U.S., they need to provide the same accommodations to Palestinian employees in the U.S. (The same principles apply with religion; employers can’t unfairly favor Jewish employees over Muslim or Christian employees).

6.    What can I do if my employer engages in discrimination or violates labor rights?

You have a right to express your concerns to your manager or HR– even if you're not a victim of discrimination yourself.

You can also file charges, as discussed below.

7.     Can I discuss discriminatory practices at work with my coworkers?

Yes. You have a right to communicate with your coworkers about the company’s working conditions, including discrimination. You can also communicate with your coworkers about coming forward as a group to talk to your employer about problems in your workplace.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

8.    Should I really bother talking to HR?

Don’t underestimate the value of speaking to HR. Regardless of whether they fix your concern, you’re creating pressure within the company just by speaking up. Under federal law, once your employer is aware of discrimination, that triggers a legal duty to conduct an investigation and take action. If you or your coworkers later file charges, your outreach provides useful evidence about whether the company was aware of illegal conduct and whether it responded appropriately. 

If more people complain to HR, there is more pressure to rethink policies and rein in misbehaving leaders within the company, because they know there is mounting legal risk. 

9.    Can my employer discipline or fire me for internally reporting discrimination? Or for serving as a witness?

No and no. It’s illegal for an employer to retaliate against you for reporting discrimination within the company, filing charges with government agencies, or serving as a witness. Your employer is not allowed to retaliate against anyone who took action in good faith, even if your employer ultimately wins the case and no discrimination is found.

10.    Can my employer spy on me? 

Generally speaking, your employer can monitor anything on their systems or networks. But they can’t spy on workers discussing workplace conditions. They also can’t listen in on private conservations (except to briefly determine if you’re violating a general ban on personal communications at work). Some states, such as California, give workers additional privacy rights. Consult a lawyer to learn more.

Practically, you’re better off having sensitive conversations outside of work as much as possible..

11.    What do I do if the employee handbook takes away my rights?

While employers can do things like ban all political speech at work, they’re not free to take away or misrepresent other rights discussed here. For example, handbooks can’t have overbroad bans against video and audio recording by employees, because sometimes recording is necessary to prove labor violations. You can speak up about illegal provisions like that.

12.    How do I file charges against my employer?

If you’ve been discriminated against, follow these instructions. If your concern is about your labor rights (coordinating with coworkers, spying issues, illegal handbook provisions, etc.), follow these instructions. You’re allowed to file charges with government agencies even if your employment agreement has an arbitration clause. Consult a lawyer about whether you can sue your employer in court.

13.    Can I talk to the media?

You have a right to communicate with third parties, including the media, about your efforts to improve workplace conditions with your coworkers. 

14.    Can I attend pro-Palestinian rallies outside of work? 

You have stronger rights outside of work, but it depends where you live. Some states protect you against retaliation for engaging in lawful conduct, including political activities, outside of work. At a minimum in those states, you can publicly support a political campaign and criticize politicians. Some courts have different opinions on the range of political activities that are protected beyond those examples, but most peaceful pro-Palestinian rallies are likely included. 

15.    Can I post about Palestine on social media outside of work?

It depends on what you say. As noted above, you have some rights to engage in political activities outside of work. But your employer may be able to take action against you if they have a reasonable belief that your activities would directly impact the company’s reputation or financial well-being. Don’t make threats or say false or hateful things. 

16.    My employer is asking me for my social media logins. Do I have to tell them?

Some states prohibit employers from making you divulge your social media login information. Check with a lawyer to learn more.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

17.    I work for the government. Do I have greater free speech rights?

Yes! But it depends on things like how high-level your job is and whether your speech disrupts work. You can reach out to a lawyer or a free speech organization to learn more.

Understanding your rights is a key part of shifting the discourse around Palestine. Despite some limits on free speech at work, as discussed above you have a variety of options for reaching out to coworkers, managers, HR, government agencies, and the public. Your voice matters. Together we can put real pressure on tech leaders to stop normalizing genocidal hate speech and instead build work cultures centered around respect, inclusivity, and basic human decency.