PITTSBURGH — Lawsuits were filed against the Centers for Rehab Services by two employees who were fired over an e-mail comparing President Barack Obama to a tar ball washing ashore in the Gulf of Mexico.
The company said the e-mail was inappropriate, but the employees said they were just expressing their political views and were wrongfully fired.
Team 4 investigator Paul Van Osdol reported that the e-mail in question was circulated last summer while the federal government was trying to contain the massive Gulf oil spill. It showed an image of Obama walking along a Gulf beach with the caption, “Another tar ball washed up on the shore.” In a memo, a Centers for Rehab Services official called it “an inappropriate e-mail that contained political and discriminatory content.”
The lawsuit said the e-mail led the company to fire Deborah Bonanno and James Sprung, who received the e-mail and forwarded it to co-workers.
In court papers, an attorney for Bonanno and Sprung said, “The motivation behind CRS’ termination was to stifle (the employees’) freedom of expression on a matter of public concern” — namely, the Gulf disaster.
Vic Walczak, the ACLU’s legal director in Pennsylvania, said employees have “very few” rights to sound off at work.
Walczak said he had not seen the lawsuits, but he said the Constitutional right to free speech does not apply when someone uses a workplace computer.
“They can say, ‘We don’t want any political discussion, we don’t want any religious discussion, we don’t want any discussion of Democrats, you’re free to talk about Republicans.’ Again, while you couldn’t do that if you were the government, when you’re a private employer, you call the shots,” Walczak said.
Companies also have the right to control some personal behavior outside the workplace.
A spokeswoman for UPMC — which is affiliated with Centers for Rehab Services — did not comment on the lawsuit but said that UPMC has a long-standing zero-tolerance policy for e-mails that are racially, sexually or otherwise offensive.