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Can Elected Politicians Terminate State Employees Who Have Different Political Views?


The term “employment-at-will” means that your employer can terminate your employment at will – i.e., whenever your employer chooses to do so. Generally speaking, you can be terminated for nearly any reason and it doesn’t even have to be a good one. The law generally presumes that you are employed at will unless you have some proof that your employer intended otherwise when you were hired. In a recent case against the new Alaskan Governor challenges this notion after he terminated numerous state employees for having different political views than his.

Alaskan Governor Allegedly “Cleaned House” When he Took Office

Michael Dunleavy was just elected as the new governor of Alaska and, only days later, he asked more than 1,200 state employees to resign. If any of those state employees refused to resign, they were terminated. Those who agreed to resign could only be rehired if they signed a statement agreeing to support the governor’s political agenda. The state employees were all considered at-will state employees, but was the governor legally authorized to take such drastic measures to ensure he had the political support he wanted? More importantly, can an employer take adverse employment actions based on politics?

Violations of Employee First Amendment Rights?

It is the opinion of many, including the attorney representing three of the terminated employees, that terminating employees for their political views violates the First Amendment free speech protections. While it may be commonplace for newly elected officials to replace some political appointees, cleaning house in the manner of Gov. Dunleavy is not at all common. In fact, it was a rather bold move. Local media, state legislators, and the outgoing governor all criticized his actions, particularly because doctors, investment managers, IT professionals, loan officers, and many others lost their jobs. These non-political employees are not the types of political appointees who are typically replaced.

If you are wondering why it is suspected that his actions were politically motivated, the reported statements of the governor’s chief of staff are rather revealing. In response to the criticism, the governor’s chief of staff explained that the employees who were asked to resign could only retain their positions by reapplying through the new governor’s transition team, which required answering a two-part question: “Do you want to work on this agenda, do you want to work in this administration?” If the employee failed to answer “yes” to these two questions, they would be terminated.

The First Amendment Protects Public Employees

The Supreme Court has held repeatedly that the First Amendment protects the right of public employees to comment on matters of public interest if they serve in non-policy-making positions. The right to free speech includes both the right to speak freely and the right to refrain from speaking at all. Therefore, expressing different political views is a right that belongs to the state employees who were terminated and requiring them to promise their allegiance to a particular political party or politician also violates those rights.

Some States Ban Employment Discrimination Based on Political Activity

There are some states, cities, and counties around the country that have banned employment discrimination based on political activity occurring outside of work. Specifically, certain states prohibit employers from terminating employees for “political activity,” including general ideological advocacy, in addition to election-related politics. Some of those states include California, Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah, and West Virginia.

What are Alabama’s Laws Regarding Politics in the Workplace?

Under Alabama law, an employer is prohibited from using any form of coercion in order to influence an employee’s vote during an election; nor can an employer ask an employee who they voted for. Coercion commonly takes the form of threatening to terminate an employee, reduce their compensation or benefits, or punish an employee in any way, in an effort to coerce the employee to vote in a particular manner. Alabama’s law does not address political speech, activity or affiliation.

If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced Birmingham employment law attorneys at Michel | King . You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880. We are here to serve you!

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