Goodyear Tire company is under fire this week for a listing of acceptable and unacceptable symbols or attire in the workplace. President Trump has railed against the inclusion of MAGA hats as “unacceptable” and called for a boycott. I do not agree. I think it is appropriate to ban political endorsements or symbols in a business but there is a legitimate concern over what is deemed “acceptable.” The touchstone of free speech protections is content neutrality and Goodyear appears to be enforcing a viewpoint preference. The question is whether, as a private business, it has an obligation to be neutral.
The story went viral after a Goodyear employee shared a slide from a recent company diversity training session at a plant in Topeka, Kan., which showed two categories: Acceptable and Unacceptable. The acceptable items included Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride (LGBT). The unacceptable items included Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, MAGA and politically affiliated slogans or material.
The MAGA reference is what set off President Trump who declared “Don’t buy GOODYEAR TIRES—They announced a BAN ON MAGA HATS. Get better tires for far less“(This is what the Radical Left Democrats do. Two can play the same game, and we have to start playing it now!).”
While stressing that the list came from a diversity training session, the company did not deny the line drawn between these groups and causes. The company released as statement that:
“Goodyear is committed to fostering an inclusive and respectful workplace where all of our associates can do their best in a spirit of teamwork. As part of this commitment, we do allow our associates to express their support on racial injustice and other equity issues but ask that they refrain from workplace expressions, verbal or otherwise, in support of political campaigning for any candidate or political party as well as other similar forms of advocacy that fall outside the scope of equity issues.”
I get the policy on barring “forms of advocacy” and businesses have the right to impose limitations, an issue that we discussed on the NFL kneeling controversy. However, the list does not seem to follow a needed bright-line rule to avoid the appearance of bias.
The inclusion of Black Lives Matter but not Blue Lives Matter raises the most obvious concern over a preference for political viewpoints. There are some people who support the call that Black Lives Matter but do not support the organization. Others support both the Black Lives Matter as well as Blue Lives Matter. I understand the view of many people that we need to focus on BLM to address problems of racial justice in our system. But it is a viewpoint preference.
In my view, Goodyear has a right to limiting viewpoints expressed in their stores. For example, a clothing store may want to espouse environmental causes. In taking such an approach, there is an obvious risk of boycotts and backlash but I do not believe that there is a legal requirement to evenly apply such rules in a private space. Even with government property classified as a non-public forum, content-based speech limitations need only be reasonable and viewpoint-neutral. Perry Educ. Ass’n v. Perry Local Educators’ Ass’n, 460 U.S. 37, 46 (1983). In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled in Grayned v. City of Rockford that in determining the time, place, and manner limitations on speech “[the] crucial question is whether the manner of expression is basically incompatible with the normal activity of a particular place at a particular time.”
In this dispute, Goodyear is allowing some advocacy while barring other forms of advocacy. However, this is a private space (albeit open to the public). The first amendment applies to government limitations on free speech. Thus, Goodyear is likely to face economic and political consequences rather than legal consequences for its policy. Goodyear reportedly stocks fell six percent after the Trump call for a boycott.