There is a major verdict in a free speech case out of Texas where Charlene Carter, a former Southwest flight attendant won a verdict of more than $5 million for her wrongful termination after a posting on social media criticizing her union on its abortion stand. Both Southwest and the Transportation Workers Union of America (TWU) (Local 556) are named as defendants. Ironically, the TWU insists that it is “offering working people a voice.” However, it is accused of working with the company to terminate this worker who spoke up against the union.
Carter joined the union in 1996, but resigned in 2013 over religious objections. However, she was still required to pay dues to the union despite religious objections to its policies.
In 2017, Carter learned that union representatives, including its president, Audrey Stone, attended the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. She went to social media to criticize the attendance and funding from Planned Parenthood.
Carter sent some of her Facebook messages to Stone, including some with videos of purported aborted fetuses. She also called Stone “despicable” and said she would be voted out of office.
Soon thereafter, Southwest managers contacted Carter about her Facebook posts and called her into a meeting. She was shown screenshots of her social media messages and was asked why she posted them.
Southwest allegedly told Carter that Stone claimed to have been “harassed” by her online. She was then fired a week later.
Everything about that account is troubling. Questioning why an employee would post pro-life messages is clearly chilling and would be taken by many as corporate hostility toward the employee’s political and religious views. Moreover, for a union president to contact a company about threats is an extraordinary action that should only occur when there is a clear threat, rather than opposition to policies or support for a recall. Carter was already paying union dues despite her opposition to its policies. Yet, the union is accused of working to undermine her position at the company.
We have addressed an array of such social media incidents, including social media controversies involving academics. In some cases, racially charged comments have been treated as free speech while in others they have resulted in discipline or termination. It is that lack of a consistent standard that has magnified free speech concerns. We have previously discussed the issue of when it is appropriate to punish people for conduct outside of the work place, including cases where people have been fired after boorish or insulting conduct once their names and employers are made known. (here and here and here and here and here and here).
This case involves the exercise of core free speech rights in opposing the union’s pro-abortion stance. It also involves the exercise of union voting rights and advocacy in seeking the recall of the union president.
It is a curious thing to have a union official allegedly seeking to punish a member for speaking out on an issue concerning the union. Unions were meant to give workers voices, not substitute their voices for approved messages. If Stone truly felt threatened, why didn’t she go to the police? Instead, it appears that she went to the company to seek termination or disciplinary action.
Absent a successful appeal, Carter could ultimately collect $4.15 million from Southwest and $950 thousand from TWU Local 556.