Can you be fired for protesting? In Florida, you can

Social media posts about the protests can lead to termination, too.
A group of about 100 people march north on US 301 during a protest in Tampa on June 2, 2020.
A group of about 100 people march north on US 301 during a protest in Tampa on June 2, 2020. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published June 11, 2020|Updated June 11, 2020

It played out several times in Tampa Bay in recent days.

An employee announced publicly they’d been fired for participating in the widespread protests for racial justice.

Their former employer, facing a deluge of phone calls, weaponized Yelp reviews and cries for them to be sued under the U.S. Constitution, said the firing had nothing to do with any protests.

Florida lawyers say it does not matter which side you believe.

Florida is an “at-will” state. “That means you can be fired for a good reason, for a bad reason, or no reason at all,” said Cynthia Sass, an employment lawyer in Tampa. “When it comes to private employers and your First Amendment rights, they don’t apply.”

It’s different for governmental employees, since the First Amendment bars the government from quashing peaceful protests. Union workers may also have added protections, depending on their contract.

But a non-union private employer in Florida has the right to terminate someone for anything, from a political opinion to their favorite football team.

That includes firing someone for attending a protest over police brutality.

Delaney Lawson, 20, said she was fired from Johnson’s Barbecue in Plant City last week, two days after attending a Black Lives Matter protest. Lawson, who is white, said she was told the firing was due to her “views."

Owner Owen Johnson said in a statement that wasn’t true, and he supports his employees’ right to protest. He said Lawson was fired for violating a company policy, and that violation took place at a protest. He would not specify the policy, stating that he respected Lawson’s “confidentiality.”

While a Florida employer can legally fire someone for protesting, Sass said it could crack open the door for discrimination lawsuits because the current protests relate to race.

The federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits workplace discrimination due to race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

“If you believe the racial discrimination you’re protesting really applies to your workplace and you vocalize this, then maybe you could bring a claim," said Sass, who represents mostly employees.

Some in Tampa Bay said they’ve lost jobs not for attending protests, but for posting about them. Christalynn Thomas, a 30-year-old baker and manager at Seminole Heights General Store, said she was fired after her boss confronted her about Facebook posts supporting protests for racial justice.

The store’s owner, Andrea Ranelle, said Thomas was not fired for that, but quit when she failed to show up for a meeting one day and never came back to work. Ranelle also said that what her employees post on social media is their own business, and they never discussed it.

Christalynn Thomas
Christalynn Thomas

The store suspended its own social media accounts this week after receiving a flood of angry comments. Thomas, who is black, said she avoided naming her employer in her Facebook bio, to avoid her posts ever becoming an issue at work.

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David Leatherwood, on the other hand, posted often about his job as a barista at Craft Kafe in St. Petersburg. The 32-year-old said his bosses knew for years that he also used his accounts to advocate for conservative politics. Leatherwood, who is white, also posted against the Black Lives Matter movement, which he believes does not promote racial equality.

Leatherwood was fired Monday after Craft Kafe received complaints about a recent post stating that “Black lives don’t matter to Black Lives Matter,” and “White privilege is a racist lie.”

As far as the law is concerned, it does not matter if someone lists their employer prominently on social accounts or keeps their job out of it, said Kristie A. Scott, a Fort Myers-based employment lawyer who often represents small business owners.

“I think you might be more protected if you don’t say who you work for on social media,” she said, “but whenever people speak, there is an expectation that it could impact their employer.

"If the employee is saying something that is completely counter to the company’s position, people might stop shopping with them. That’s a realistic concern, and it’s not protected. They can terminate you for having different views and saying it.”

There could be other legal considerations for such a firing.

“If one employee is saying they don’t support Black Lives Matter, some people — whether they are right or wrong — are viewing that as racism,” she said. “And so, if something else happens with that company where a minority thinks they were not treated well, and they sue, they can say this employer didn’t do anything to correct this other racist situation.”

On the flip side, Scott said, if someone blasts a former boss on social media for firing them over protests or racism when it was some other reason, that former employee could be sued for defamation.

In business, of course, there is more to consider than lawsuits. Craft Kafe owner Ted Skiadiotis said “customer service is our religion," which is why he was feeling “devastated” after a barrage of angry calls, comments and hundreds of one-star Yelp reviews coming from all sides.

First, he said, it was people demanding that he fire Leatherwood after the “white privilege" post or be labeled racist. Then, after he did fire him, it was a brigade of Leatherwood supporters who were furious the owner caved to the “liberal thought police.”

“I haven’t slept in two days,” Skiadiotis said Tuesday, his voice cracking. “It was a business decision. I’m not a political person. I just want to make good food and have good customer service. I don’t tell anyone what to think."

He said the situation has reminded him about the fragility of a business. “With the internet and social media, it could be gone in a split second.”

David Leatherwood
David Leatherwood

Leatherwood used the situation to raise close to $15,000 through a crowdfunding campaign and said he plans to go into politics and activism full time.

Sass, the lawyer who represents workers, said people might want to ask their employer for a clear policy on social media and on protests.

"I can’t imagine any employer wanting to have a written policy that says no one can protest when they’re off duty."

Scott, the lawyer who represents employers, said every business should make clear to workers where the company stands, and what’s expected of them.

The owners of Oxford Exchange in Tampa did that after a rumor spread on Twitter that a manager told employees not to protest. The company had previously sent a message to its 100-plus workers saying it was committed to finding ways to combat racism and educate the community, but it didn’t address an employee policy on protesting.

After the tweets, “I brought everyone together and said there is no basis for this, everyone here can protest, my daughter is protesting, we respect your right to free speech,” said owner Alison Adams.

She said it was tough to read the comments, “but I’ve had some great conversations come out of this, and we need more conversation.”

Correction: Though Florida law does not prohibit private employers from firing an employee for expressing a political opinion, it is illegal in the state to fire someone specifically for voting or not voting for a particular candidate. An earlier version of this story that said a person could be legally fired for how they voted was inaccurate.

• • •

Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times

HOW TO SUPPORT: Whether you’re protesting or staying inside, here are ways to educate yourself and support black-owned businesses.

WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.

WHAT ARE POLICE USING? A guide to non-lethal and less-lethal weapons used in local, national protests.

WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.

WHY DO POLICE CLASH WITH PROTESTERS? We looked at law enforcement rules. They urge de-escalation but only to a point.

HEADING TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.

SOME NEW, SOME LONGTIME FAVORITES: Here are 15 black-owned restaurants and food businesses in Tampa Bay