“Joe, in response to all this NFL stuff, we want you to display U.S. flags at your workstation.”

“No.”

“Well, then you’re fired.”

Don’t think that can happen? Then you haven’t heard about the Cotto v. United Technologies Corp. case — a long-forgotten Connecticut Supreme Court case from 20 years ago that has particular meaning in today’s environment where standing for the national anthem has become front page news.

Is this patriotic too?

The basic facts are as I described them above:

  • The plaintiff alleged in his complaint that he was employed on a full-time basis by the defendant for approximately twelve years.
  • In April 1991, the employer distributed American flags to employees in the plaintiff’s department and it was expected that all employees would display American flags at their workstations.
  • The plaintiff declined to display the American flag and further gave his opinion on the propriety of coercing or exerting pressure on employees to display the American flag.
  • After a suspension, he was fired by his employer on or about May 16, 1992.

The Supreme Court had two things to say on this. First, the Court held that the employee could raise a claim under a state law that an employee’s free speech claims were being violated. Again, i talked more about this law in a post last month.

But that’s only part of the decision. In the other half of the decision, the Court was asked to decide whether the employee actually had a free speech claim.

The Court reminds us first that not everything is a federal or even state case.  “As a statutory matter, a statute that protects constitutional rights in the workplace should not be construed so as to transform every dispute about working conditions into a constitutional question.”

And then the court reminds us, in language that has direct implications for the discussion we’ve been having about standing for the national anthem, that the Complaint was missing a few essential aspects to rise to that level.

Significantly, the plaintiff has not alleged that:  (1) he was directed to manifest his patriotism by saluting the flag or otherwise affirming his allegiance thereto;  (2) he was directed to affix the flag to his person or to his private property;  or (3) he was indirectly directed to associate himself with the symbolism of the flag because the location of his workstation was such that members of the public, or his fellow employees, reasonably could have attributed that symbolism to him personally.

Instead, the claim rested on the requirement for the Plaintiff to affix the flag to the workstation. The Court saw no meaningful difference to that act, versus an employer who did it for the employee — which would not violate the First Amendment.

A direction to the plaintiff to affix a flag to his workstation did not require him either to manifest or to clarify his personal political beliefs.   Because a flag was to be affixed to  each workstation, and because the plaintiff’s workstation was not exposed to public scrutiny, he was not required to assume the risk that others might attribute to him any political beliefs about the flag that he did not share.   In other words, the direction to the plaintiff, as a matter of law, was not a “coercion of belief.”

Hmmm.

Now, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve been seeing press reports that the NFL and its teams may require its players to stand at the national anthem.  Let’s suppose that happened in Connecticut too and that a paid employee was fired for refusing.

Given the language in Cotto, could the employee allege that he “was directed to manifest his patriotism by saluting the flag or otherwise affirming his allegiance thereto” — a fact that was missing in the Cotto case?

That obviously is an unanswered question, but it just goes to show that you can learn a lot through your history.

  • David Mcbeth

    CGS Sec. 31-51q makes it actionable to terminate or demote or otherwise harm an employee for exercising free speech. Most other states have no such protections for their employees. But its still not unfettered free speech protections; if the free speech harms the employer, the employer still may take action. So, the NFL example? Likely, even in CT the employer could likely say that the requirement to stand does not harm the employee’s free speech rights and the refusal to stand harms the employer’s interests.

    So even with CGS Sec. 31-51q in place, I don’t see a guy kneeling, getting fired for it, would win a civil suit for violating his free speech rights.