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I have a bumper sticker on my vehicle that says

Polite as Fuck

The sticker is about 3" × 5" (7.6 cm × 12.7 cm) in white block lettering.

My employer has told me to remove the sticker or face disciplinary action. They also said there have been two complaints received within the year. The car is a personal vehicle and is not used for any type of company business. The vehicle is parked on company property (their parking lot that all employees use).

I live and work in the United States. Would this be considered a freedom-of-speech issue or does the company have the right to ask/tell me to remove the sticker?

Update: Regarding some of the answers and comments; I was not intending to walk away from my job over a bumper sticker. The sticker can be bought here and has a large following here and has a community known as "a drinking organization with a charity problem".

A better question might have been related to professionalism of the sticker and if it was such a big issue that my employer needed to be worried about it?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio May 22 '16 at 3:31
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    Do you work for the government? That could change the answer. – David Grinberg May 22 '16 at 20:25
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    "... such a big for my employer to worried about"?? – David Conrad May 27 '16 at 12:30
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    What was the resolution of this conflict? – kleineg Jun 1 '16 at 19:43
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    Two other notes: (1) Did you consider finding a place to park your car that isn't on company property? Then you could keep your bumper sticker, and they certainly wouldn't need to say anything about it, because they'd never see your car. (2) As to "if it was such a big issue", that goes both ways. Your employer could well ask whether it's such a big issue that you would insist it stay on your car. – Kyralessa Jun 15 '16 at 4:44

12 Answers 12

406

You absolutely have the right to have that bumper sticker on your car1. Your employer also has the right to fire you for keeping it there.

I'd suggest removing the sticker. Feel free to ignore this advice if you prefer being an uncompromising boor over being employed.

As for freedom of speech, consider reading up on what those laws actually mean. Alternatively, check out xkcd:

xkcd comic about free speech

I can't remember where I heard this, but someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you're saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it's not literally illegal to express.

Source: xkcd 1357


1 — Assuming it isn't violating public indecency laws, IANAL. Your first amendment may not protect you from arbitrary fines, potentially unconstitutional state law or high lawyer fees.

109

Life is short, pick the right battles. Let's assume that the employer is wrong, and look at some of the consequences of your "victory" in this battle:

  • Complaining about frivolous issues is a great career killer.
    People are reluctant to work with "that guy" who went to HR (or much worse, to the court) with a bumper sticker issue, for the fear that you would complain about them too when they fall below your expectations. You get increasingly isolated at the workplace, especially politically, and a lone warrior cannot advance much on the corporate ladder.

  • You get assigned only the boring tasks.
    In the corporate world, being right is of miniscule importance compared to building the right perception. You constantly build a perception with everything you do, and people's actions are influenced by how they perceive you. Management has little reason to assign challenging tasks to someone who made it loud and clear that he wouldn't compromise even on a trivial issue. You would, of course, be right in principle if you argue that your bumper sticker is irrelevant to your work. Good luck trying to change that, however.

  • You become the source of unnecessary attention.
    Your bumper sticker becomes the topic of workplace gossip, which does not always happen behind your back. You also receive several annoying politeas f---? questions about the complaint. All this is a huge waste of time and mental energy with no reward.

  • Dealing with awkward questions at the next job interview.
    The most "interesting" workplace gossip eventually spreads outside the company, since it is not uncommon for people to have their spouse, siblings, friends, ex-colleagues, etc. working at other companies in the same industry. You would eventually want to switch jobs, which could happen sooner rather than later. At one of the next job interviews, be prepared to deal with the question, "Oh, so are you the bumper sticker guy?", and the awkward conversation that follows.

If you consider all this trouble worth the "privilege" of displaying your beloved bumper sticker in the company parking lot, you could certainly push your case. I find the return on investment and the reward to risk ratio very low here.

However, remember this was based on our initial assumption that your employer is wrong. As other answers have pointed out, your company most certainly has the right to place reasonable restrictions on how employees use their parking lot. Depending on the local laws, a strong case could be made if the bumper sticker involved anything explictly "protected" by freedom of speech (such as religious texts or symbols), but it is hard to see that apply here.

78

I was in a DC airport around 2010 when I overheard a conversation:

"We needed to let some people go. So Bob^* went through the parking lot to see which cars had Obama bumper stickers. They wanted change, they got change."

(the guy was obviously saying this to impress the woman he was with. edit it appears he was actually basing his story on an urban legend.)

I looked up the relevant laws - and there is absolutely no law violated in firing people based on the political opinion expressed in bumper stickers. In fact I found a specific example of a socialist being fired for his political beliefs by a government contractor. In the US, you can absolutely fire someone for their political opinions, sexual preference, etc UNLESS there is a law explicitly prohibiting it.

Freedom of speech is a great US principle, but the Constitution prohibits Congress from taking actions to take away freedom of speech (and courts have extended this to any government). This does not apply to private business. So if your employer is a government agency, you're safe (in the case above the socialist would have been safe if he were a government employee). Otherwise you've got no right to it.

But specifically: you can absolutely be fired for having a bumper sticker, and they are under no obligation to even give you a chance to take it off first.

*not the actual name

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio May 23 '16 at 16:36
  • When you say there is absolutely no law violated in firing people based on the political opinion expressed in bumper stickers, how key is the in bumper stickers part ? – SantiBailors May 27 '16 at 12:31
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    @SantiBailors Not key at all. Your employer can fire you for anything you say or believe unless there is a law protecting it - even if said/believed purely in the privacy of your own home. The First Amendment does not provide any protection from your employer. A number of laws do exist (e.g., Civil Rights Act). – Joel May 27 '16 at 22:33
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The way I see it.

Either you double down.

enter image description here

You take the passive aggressive approach. enter image description here

Or my favorite, because you actually want to keep your job, you capitulate.

enter image description here

Also I suppose, you could just alter your bumper sticker to say:

"Polite as Janet from HR wants me to be"

Or "Polite as [====]" with some cheap tape covering the offensive word.

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    I particularly like "Polite as Janet from HR wants me to be" -- though it's rather passive-aggressive. – Doktor J May 22 '16 at 17:58
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    Taping over the F-word on the sticker was my immediate reaction too. I think it adequately keeps more sensitive coworkers from being exposed to profanity while leaving the fundamental joke intact for coworkers who enjoy it. The only issue is that the people who initially ordered the sticker to be removed may see this as a slap in the face, ignoring the spirit of their instruction. I'd consider that unreasonable, though - I think "Polite As (taped over)" is no more offensive than "Polite As !#@%?*" would be. – recognizer May 23 '16 at 16:47
  • Their reaction will largely depend on their personality type, the mood they're in, and their existing relationship with you. If not following the spirit of their instruction will still risk getting you fired (with no other warning given), or if it means getting passed over for promotion a couple of years later down the road, then I wouldn't do it of course. You know these people more than we do, so it's not like we can take a better guess than you. – Stephan Branczyk May 23 '16 at 17:16
  • I suppose you could always use an hair blow dryer at the highest heat level and just remove the offensive part. This way, you could always have plausible deniability about not being able to remove everything at once. But still, if it were me, I would just put the "I used to be cool." sticker on top of it. And until I got the new sticker delivered to me, I would either remove the old sticker entirely, or I'd park outside of the parking lot a block or two away. – Stephan Branczyk May 23 '16 at 17:24
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    Why not parking a block or two away permanently? – Rui F Ribeiro May 26 '16 at 12:21
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The fact that you used the "spoiler tag" in your post to hide the content of your bumper sticker already says that you think it is (or might be considered) inappropriate.

Whether your employer has the right or not of forbidding this kind of stickers is, IMHO, not the point. The point is whether you want to be a nice employee or you want to be pointed out as the one who picks fights at every opportunity.

The best outcome for you (if you want to keep working there in a nice environment -- or, bluntly said, if you want to keep working there) would be to apologize, tell you employer you didn't realize it was so offensive, and rip the sticker off your car.

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    Obviously it might be considered inappropriate; the question is due to someone actually considering it inappropriate. And since some people consider it inappropriate (regardless of OP's feelings on it), why risk the ire of moderators on a popular website? – Kyle Strand May 25 '16 at 22:27
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Can you park your car backwards so the bumper sticker is not as visible? I mean enter the parking space in reverse, with the boot/trunk/exhaust-end first so that people walking/driving past see the front/hood/bonnet/grille end of your car only.

Similar to covering a tattoo or a piercing on request.

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    I don't know why this response isn't getting more votes. OP should check with HR and see if this is an acceptable solution. Regardless of whether the parking lot is the company's property (and in leased office space scenarios, it technically ISN'T), OP's car is OP's property and they are asking him/her to make a permanent change to it. If parking the car so the sticker isn't visible isn't acceptable to the company, I think some questions need to be asked about WHY it's not acceptable. I'm not sure I'd want to work for such a company... – Doktor J May 22 '16 at 17:57
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    I'm not sure I would call removing a bumper sticker from a car a "permanent change" to the car. It's definitely not in the same league as even, say, having the car repainted. – a CVn May 22 '16 at 20:51
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    Covering it up would also be a much less permanent change (and much more similar to the answer's text of "covering a tattoo" ... "on request".) – TOOGAM May 22 '16 at 21:41
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    @JoeStrazzere while the employer told OP to remove the sticker, I suspect they really meant "we don't want to see it again." So for instance if the OP sold the car without removing the sticker, then I doubt the employer is going to hunt down the car, see the sticker has not been removed, and discipline OP. Alternatively, the OP could remove and reapply the sticker (technical compliance but not doing what the employer really wanted). Having said that, I would just remove the sticker. – emory May 23 '16 at 11:04
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    @emory I know this is arguing over a technicality, but my interpretation is the employer wants OP to "not park the car with an offensive sticker in the company's parking lot". If the OP brings in another vehicle, or takes a cab, or parks the car in some external parking space, it is none of the employer's problem. Whether parking the car in reverse is an acceptable solution is something the employer should take a call on, since the car still has to drive through the company premises to reach there, and they might consider the sticker being visible even for those few minutes offensive. – Masked Man May 26 '16 at 15:47
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In most states you're an at-will employee. They can fire you for literally anything except membership in a protected class (race, sex, religion...). They can fire you for your haircut.

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    True, but not necessarily relevant. Unprofessional behavior which reflects poorly on the company is an offense for which you can be fired in every state, as it should be. – reirab May 22 '16 at 6:09
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    The bumper sticker can be considered unprofessional behavior. – Shaymin Gratitude May 22 '16 at 19:57
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Their property rights trump your free speech rights.

They can instruct you to remove the sticker as a condition of you using their car park. If your car never went into the car park it would of course be none of their business, but since it does they can impose any conditions they like on you for the privilege of using their car park. One of them is that you remove your offensive sticker.

Of course there is the other matter as to whether it is a good idea to take a stand on this (it isn't) but an answer to the simple legal question of whether they have the right to tell you to remove it is that they do.

  • +1. Perhaps even the risk is not being fired, but losing the right to use the parking. That is an even-more lost battle against regarding free speech. – Luis Masuelli May 25 '16 at 23:41
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    Their property rights trump your free speech rights. False - you have no free speech rights in regard to your employer's policies on bumper stickers in a parking lot. Freedom of speech protection means the government cannot censor you. It doesn't mean your employer has to tolerate your bumper sticker. – Brandon May 29 '16 at 15:18
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Whether or not this is a violation of your rights is up to a lawyer's arguments and a court's decision. We are not qualified to make an assessment as to whether your rights are being violated.

Businesses are prohibited from treating people differently based upon protected classes (race, sex, etc.). "Obscene" is not a protected class. It is common for employers to have policies that limit the things you can say while working and/or while on company property (such as forbidding the use of profanity either verbally or on clothing, accessories, etc.). There is an established business need for it. Can you imagine going to a restaurant where the server walked up and said, "Are you ready to order yet, you f*&$!&@ a$@*)!#" and nothing could be done because he/she was exercising their freedom of speech (yes, there was a novelty restaurant chain that did stuff like this, but I haven't seen them around in a while)? What if the cashier at the electronics store told everyone at checkout, "Everything here is overpriced. You can get it cheaper down the street at Mediocre Buy." What if the guy in the cubicle next to you plastered the walls with something you found extremely offensive (like something attacking your significant other, parents, children, etc.)? You can just close your eyes when you walk by, right?

Any legitimate business probably also has a legitimate need to impose some limitations on what can and can't be said in/around company property, whether it is to protect secrets, protect themselves from lawsuits, or simply prevent their managers from being inundated with complaints. The bottom line is, if you are causing a disturbance in the workplace, expect them to ask you to stop. The purpose of a for-profit business is to make profit, not give employees a venue for self-expression. It isn't that they are trying to be controlling (usually) or that they really care, but mitigating complaints also distracts from doing more meaningful things (like running the business).

  • Does your second sentence indicate that you are not qualified for jury duty? – Noctis Skytower May 26 '16 at 13:50
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    @NoctisSkytower I have served jury duty. A juror's role is to determine whether or not an allegation is accurate (using the standards of reasonable doubt or preponderance of evidence, depending if it is criminal or civil) after both sides have presented their evidence and arguments, and under counsel of a judge. A juror does not determine the charge. Since we are hearing a single side of an argument with no evidence, none of us are qualified to render any form of judgment. – DVK May 26 '16 at 16:52
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Easy question;

The company has every right to do what ever they want on their property. They could fire everyone with blue cars, they could require you not to drive a yellow car, they could force you to only drive a dodge... on their property.

The car is yours, and you can do with it what you want, but the parking lot is theirs.

  • Remove the sticker
  • Cover up the word with duct tape or the like
  • Don't drive that car to work

Obviously, someone out there doesn't like your sticker, and has complained to the company. The company has decided that they don't like the sticker either and they want it off their parking lot (the reason doesn't matter).

It's the same thing as a dress code, funny t-shirts, hats, or desk calendars. It's your right to own them, but it's there right to not have them at the company.

My advise, remove the sticker, or cover it up. It's just not worth it.

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    For a long time, General Motors prohibited employees (and sometimes visitors) from parking Japanese-made cars in company parking lots. Totally legal. – Jeffiekins May 25 '16 at 19:17
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    I have friends who work for GM. Last I heard, they had a designated parking area for foreign-made cars, far away from the entrance. Also, union thugs routinely vandalize foreign-made cars. One thing management and the union agree on. – Jay May 26 '16 at 14:02
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You wouldn't continuously drop F-Bombs on company premises all day long.

What makes you think it's OK to have your car continuously beaming out an F-Bomb on company premises all day long?

IMHO it's absolutely not OK to have a bumped sticker like that in the company car park. It brings disrepute to the company, and may likely offend visitors/customers - potentially turning them off using your company and thus harming its bottom line.

If you think your sticker is clever, it's not. And you're not going to make any friends with it in the wider community either. Grow up, wise up, and remove the sticker.

  • +1 This was the only answer which mentioned potential damage to the company by offending customers. – Brandon May 29 '16 at 15:24
  • @Brandon I guess the other answerers thought that was obvious, and not needed to be mentioned explicitly. The company wouldn't tell OP to remove the sticker just for the lulz. – Masked Man May 30 '16 at 11:23
  • @MaskedMan Few things is life are truly "obvious". You don't know what the motivation was for requesting that the sticker be removed. It could have been that a particularly conservative employee complained to management. – Bohemian May 30 '16 at 20:10
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As several others have said, the short answer is, Yes, the company has a legal right to impose speech codes on its premises. I won't elaborate on that: it's been said.

But let me add this: You know that the bumper sticker is offensive to many people. The offense is not an accident, but the intended purpose of the bumper sticker. You don't dispute that, do you? You're not going to seriously say that if wherever you bought this bumper sticker that they had one next to it that said "I am very polite" that you might just as well have bought that one as conveying the same message. You bought this bumper sticker because you thought it was cool to deliberately offend people who object to vulgar language.

So don't tell us now that you are surprised and distressed that people are offended.

This is not at all the same as someone having a political or religious bumper sticker. Someone who puts a "Vote for the Democrat" bumper sticker on his car is not normallly doing it with the deliberate intention of offending Republicans, or vice versa.

Your position here is that you want to fight for your right to insult and offend other people for no reason other than that you think it's fun to insult and offend people without provocation, without having to suffer any consequences. I'd say: Umm, no.

So forgetting the legal questions, just considering this as a people issue, this comes down to: The company has an employee -- you -- who is going out of his way to insult and offend other employees. They have two choices: Tell the offending employee to stop, or tell the offended employees that they have to put up with it.

In this case, if I was the boss, I'd probably say, Hey, if his bumper sticker offends you, ignore it. Nobody's forcing you to read his bumper sticker. It's not in your face. But I have no problem comprehending the boss's position.

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    I don't see any justification in assuming that OP obtained that sticker for the purpose of offending people. More likely, s/he liked it for the humor of the inherent contradiction it expressed. – JLRishe May 26 '16 at 17:59
  • @JLRishe But the humor is: I call myself polite at the same time that I deliberately offend. If the vulgarity wasn't offensive, there would be no humor. Would he -- his profile indicates the OP is a "he", BTW -- have bought a bumper sticker that said "Polite as heck"? Probably not. Why not? Because wihtout the juxtaposition of offensiveness and the assertion of politeness, there is no joke. – Jay May 26 '16 at 19:01
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    Are you saying that using the f-word is tantamount to "deliberately offending"? I would say it's not. – JLRishe May 27 '16 at 4:56
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    Other employees may be offended, but it's silly to claim that the sticker is intended to insult anyone, since it literally does not convey an insult. The statement does not have an object from which an insult can be derived. If the sticker said "You are ugly" then you might have a point. Cursing in the presence of a person is not the same thing as cursing AT that person. – barbecue May 27 '16 at 13:02
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    @Jay Why would a person putting this bumper sticker on their car assume that it would offend people? The joke here is that the f-word is a word that's very impolite, not "this bumper sticker will offend people". The word isn't directed at anyone; it's just printed on a piece of paper. Frankly, it boggles my mind to imagine the kind of withering flowers who would see this in a company parking lot and take offense. Sounds like they're taking offense just for the sake of offense-taking. – JLRishe May 28 '16 at 16:34

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