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The high cost of free speech

Updated: Jul 7, 2022

Will we ever have “watercooler conversations” again? Hard to say when Twitter and Slack have largely taken their place but whether in the office or online, competing notions of what makes “free speech” have been louder and angrier in recent years. As we strive to allow employees to bring their authentic selves to work — creating healthier, more productive environments — there’s the challenge for employers of navigating online political speech and its consequences.

The most infamous example of social media speech gone wrong is the case of Justine Sacco, whose single tweet in 2013 horrified millions on Twitter and got her immediately fired. More recently, in April 2022, a former Meta and Google employee declared across a series of tweets that “women shouldn’t code…a woman should prioritize being a mother and wife.” Amidst the justifiable backlash, he then turned an offensive statement into litigation risk when he added, “So when I used to conduct interviews for Google, I rejected all women on the spot and trashed their résumés in front of them.”

Twitter has tried to curb hateful statements (even banning a former US president) but this has only made cries of “censorship” louder. Tesla CEO Elon Musk broke the internet when he announced in April his plan to buy Twitter for $44 billion and “restore” free speech but given the wildly diverse, often vicious opinions still pouring across the platform at any given moment, it’s hard to see if his version of “free speech” doesn’t just mean “hate speech.”

The tone is getting louder and nastier. Any pushback against hate speech is called “cancel culture” and even public health measures to curb COVID-19 in Canada have been met with ongoing protests in Ottawa against “dictatorship.” Mount Royal University in Calgary was forced to take the unusual step of firing a tenured professor because of her claims that residential schools were a benefit to Indigenous children and that the Black Lives Matter movement had “destroyed” the university. “I was generally criticizing ‘woke’ ideas,” she insisted, but thousands of students called for her dismissal and the faculty agreed.

For companies navigating these current debates, it can feel like being thrown along whitewater rapids. For example, as part of its diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in 2021, State Farm insurance partnered with a transgender youth organization but became targeted by conservative activists this May and immediately cut ties with the youth group.

On a grander scale, Florida signed a bill in March prohibiting teachers from discussing race and gender and sexual orientation in grade schools, but when horrified activists urged Disney to use their massive clout in the state to intervene, CEO Bob Chapek insisted the corporation does not get involved in political issues. As US historian and civil-rights activist Howard Zinn famously said, “You can’t stay neutral on a moving train.” LGBTQ customers felt betrayed by Disney (still happily selling them rainbow-festooned merchandise) and many Disney employees went on strike in protest. Within a week, the CEO put out a public statement disavowing the bill, apologizing for the “painful silence,” and supporting their diverse employees and fans, but now the company faces a furious Christian conservative boycott of “woke Disney.”

It can feel like there’s no winning in this inferno of cultural fights. The old days of “corporate neutrality” are gone but we at Breakfast Culture have long championed “the three B’s of Woke Marketing” as a guide:

The public is tired of watching companies adding Black Lives Matter hashtags and rainbow logos to their social media while donating to politicians actively working against those causes. Regardless of their political stances, consumers can smell inauthenticity and will react against it. Whatever cause an organization chooses to advocate on behalf of, they must be prepared to advocate fully. Our Woke Marketing consulting and workshops help organizations navigate these choppy waters and attract a greater range of customers and clients.

And yes, not every employee will agree, so having transparent policies in place that do not leave things to subjective views of "your manager's discretion" to protect one's brand is important. Employees should know to keep their personal social media very separate from their professional social media, common-sense rules still apply here, and clear prohibitions against hate speech are not censorship. If there are employees who can’t see that distinction, well that’s a bigger problem. Breakfast Culture can help organizations with this on two fronts. First, with our Diversity & Inclusion Audits that help organizations listen to their employees' needs and then plan a customized D&I strategy, and second with our #SafeSpace Discussion Facilitation, in which political and cultural disagreements between teammates can be worked out in an equitable way. Social media can still play a vital role in creating change in our workforces and our communities, we just all need to remember that it’s about inclusion, not division.

Happy to jump on a call to discuss how Breakfast Culture can help with your organizational diversity and inclusion journey. Schedule a 30-minute meeting today: Let's Break Some Eggs! – Scott Dagostino, JEDI Consultant, Breakfast Culture™Inc.

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