May 7, 2015

Free Expression for Employees of Secular Organizations

Free expression tunnel

When an employee of a non-profit organization that relies heavily on donations to support itself uses her public Twitter account - a Twitter account that clearly identifies her as working for the organization - to express views that are potentially contrary to the organization's mission, what should the organization do? It is an interest question and one that may not have a single acceptable answer.

Perhaps the organization should do nothing. After all, it would be nice to see more organizations supporting the free expression of their employees. Maybe we should even expect this from secular organizations that champion freethought or express unpopular ideas. Alternatively, perhaps the organization should intervene on the grounds that their employee's public statements reflect poorly on them or might even be harmful in the sense of being contrary to their mission, reducing donations, and the like.

Questions like this can be tough to consider in the abstract. It helps to have a specific example in front of us. Back in March, this recently showed up in my Twitter timeline:

My initial thought was something along the lines of wondering why someone who felt this way would continue to work on church-state advocacy in a position that would regularly put her in contact with such awful people. My next thought was one of hoping that I had been fooled by a parody account. I'm not particularly good at recognizing them, and I have certainly been fooled before.

Sarah Jones is listed on the Americans United for Separation of Church and State website as a Communications Associate. This would seem to imply that she works for them. Americans United is an organization that works to maintain the separation of church and state in the U.S. Presumably, they are an organization that benefits from having positive relationships with atheists even though I do not think they necessarily identify themselves as an atheist organization.

I am not sure if having one of their employees publicly announce that she cannot find like-minded non-theists because of the extent of misogyny and Islamophobia among atheists would be cause for concern by Americans United. Maybe they share the perspective that there is "too much misogyny and Islamophobia in the atheist community..." Even if they do not, they might regard it as not being sufficiently detrimental to their goals or reputation to require any sort of action. And of course, they might support their employees right to freely express themselves.

While the tweet above strikes me as an odd perspective for an employee of an organization like Americans United to express on her public Twitter account, I'm coming down on the side of hoping that Americans United and similar secular organizations support the expression of such ideas. I don't have to agree with what Ms. Jones says in order to support her right to say it. I think it is nice to see secular organizations permitting their employees to express themselves. I hope more will do the same.