On May 17, 2022, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont signed into law the so-called “captive audience” bill (Senate Bill 163), which prohibits employers from requiring their employees to (a) attend employer-sponsored meetings that have a primary purpose of communicating the employer’s opinion concerning religious or political matters, or (b) listen to speech or view communications that have a primary purpose of communicating the employer’s opinion regarding religious or political matters. The law goes into effect on July 1, 2022.
The law expands Connecticut General Statutes § 31-51q, which statute already gives both public and private employees the right to sue their employer if the employer disciplines or fires the employee because of his or her exercise of free speech rights under both the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Connecticut Constitution. Such protected speech must be on a matter of “public concern” and must not substantially or materially interfere with the employee’s job performance or relationship with their employer.
This new “captive audience” amendment to the statute goes further, prohibiting an employer from disciplining or discharging an employee for “refusing to (A) attend an employer-sponsored meeting with the employer or its agent, representative or designee, the primary purpose of which is to communicate the employer’s opinion concerning religious or political matters, or (B) listen to speech or view communications, the primary purpose of which is to communicate the employer’s opinion concerning religious or political matters.” Political matters might include a decision to join or support a political party or labor organization.
While the bill was championed by the state’s unions and largely seen as a measure to protect workers from employer intimidation during union organizing campaigns, the language of the law is not limited to the topic of unionization. Pro-business groups such as the Connecticut Business & Industry Association (CBIA) have deemed the controversial legislation to be an unconstitutional gag order on account of it being preempted by federal law under the National Labor Relations Act, reflecting an adversarial attitude toward Connecticut businesses in the way it dictates how employers interact with employees.
Among other concerns, employers should be aware that workers might use this new law to justify their refusal to participate in any meeting or training session—such as a session covering diversity, equity, and inclusion for instance—because it violates their political or religious beliefs. As the new law goes into effect, the attorneys at Murtha Cullina are ready to advise on this and other workplace speech issues.