Free to speak

If Temple University Hospital’s 1,500 nurses and allied health professionals go on strike tomorrow, one issue will be management’s request to add a non-disparagement clause to the contract.

Up front, I have to admit that I have a bias here — a bias that comes with being a reporter. We reporters don’t like rules that keep people quiet and issues buried.

Here’s the clause from Temple’s final offer, dated March 15:

“The association [the union], its officers, agents, representatives and members shall not publicly criticize, ridicule or make any statement which disparages or is derogatory of Temple, or … management officers...”

Most reporters object to government officials’ doing the public’s business in back rooms. We aren’t happy with secret negotiations in judges’ chambers.

Obviously, some things — a police investigation, the identity of a CIA agent — need to be secret, especially if someone could be harmed. In general, though, people should be able to talk and write. That’s America, even if it gets awkward at times.

Nurses say they want to be able to raise concerns about patient safety. Management says the language is really addressed to the union, which, they say, has been disparaging the hospital as a tactic. The hospital, it says, has internal procedures to address safety concerns.

The truth is the First Amendment right to free speech does not extend to the workplace, said Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute and author of a new book, Can They Do That? Retaking our Fundamental Rights in the Workplace.

Mostly, he said, anybody can be fired for anything, although whistle-blower laws can protect some employees.
Collective-bargaining agreements also may help, because usually they require companies to fire “for cause,” and grousing doesn’t count.

Anti-disparagement clauses do exist in the workplace, particularly in severance agreements — cash for quiet. Here are my questions:

What is disparagement? Who decides? Is there a public interest in encouraging employees of public institutions to voice legitimate concerns? And doesn’t Temple have the option of filing a defamation suit, as it already has, against the union?

Word to my readers: This is a copy of the column that appeared in this morning's Philadelphia Inquirer. For the week, I'm sitting in for my colleague, Mike Armstrong. He usually also does our business section's online television show, but he's way better looking than I am, so our newspaper's management wisely decided to minimize the risk by just running my black and white photo in the paper. Good move. Anyway, for the duration of my stint, my column and this blog item will be the same. The vagaries in our online publishing system require that. Hope you enjoy the column. I'm having fun!