May 11, 2016

Question of the Week: Can Employers Shut Down Employees’ Speech for Safety Reasons?

By the C|C Whistleblower Lawyer Team

Dr. Diane Horvath-Cosper provides women’s health and family planning services at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, DC.  Abortion services form a significant part of her practice.  In addition to providing abortions to women who need them, she has long advocated for abortion access and provider safety in news articles and advocacy work with organizations like Physicians for Reproductive Health and National Abortion Federation.

But then a gunman attacked the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood in November 2015, killing three people and injuring nine.  MedStar’s senior leadership subsequently nixed Dr. Horvath-Cosper’s public advocacy to avoid putting “a K-Mart blue light special on the fact that we provide abortions at MedStar.”  Fears of violence are not unfounded.  The Colorado Springs attack was neither the first nor the last in a distressing string of threats and violence directed at abortion providers.

In protest, Dr. Horvath-Cosper filed a civil rights complaint against MedStar on May 2, 2016, alleging that the hospital violated her rights under the Church Amendment.  The Church Amendment protects health care personnel from employment discrimination based on their views on abortion.  Ironically, the provision was passed in the wake of Roe v. Wade to protect the rights of anti-choice doctors.  Despite its one-sided purpose, the statutory language is neutral, and there’s nothing stopping Dr. Horvath-Cosper from using it to protect her right to advocate for abortion access.

In the loaded and violent context of abortion advocacy and protest, MedStar’s concerns make some sense. Anti-abortion websites already feature pictures of both Dr. Horvath-Cosper and her young daughter in an attempt to intimidate and silence her.  Violent anti-choice protesters might very well consider her workplace a target.  But whether Medstar’s concerns justify giving what might be called a “heckler’s veto” to anti-choice activists is another matter.  Doing so, pro-choice advocates warn, allows anti-choice voices to dominate the public conversation through threats of violence.  And doing so threatens to shut down whistleblowers like Dr. Horvath-Cosper, arguably in much the same way as the online threats.

What do you think? Should an employer’s safety concerns trump an employee’s right to speak out?

Question of the Week: Can Employers Shut Down Employees’ Speech for Safety Reasons?


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    One Response to “Question of the Week: Can Employers Shut Down Employees’ Speech for Safety Reasons?

    1. In my opinion, when employers squelch their employees freedom of speech, they also suppress their own ability to stand up and support their reasons for providing the services they do. In addition, by yielding to hate groups and individuals, they give them the power to do even greater damage, not just to their own business, but to the business of others as well.