You perhaps have been unaware, if you live outside the UK, of the name Able Seaman William McNeilly. Briefly, he is in the Royal Navy and his job is engineering technician on nuclear submarines. Recently he was part of the crew of HMS Victorious one of the UK’s trident missile nuclear submarine fleet.
He has caused a stir by blowing the whistle on lax to non-existent security on HMS Victorious and, by implication, throughout the Trident fleet.
Most brazen of the many examples he provides is this instance:
He used a hotel key card instead of his RN security pass ID card to gain entrance to highly sensitive areas of the submarine.
He asserts that security is so lapse, especially when docked at its home base (Faslane in Scotland,) that the security alarms were turned off because they were going off all the time.
A.S. McNeilly’s concern is of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands, not to be whisked away, but to be fired on the UK from the submarine itself.
You can read his story all across the internet. Here is an example from The Guardian. His future is not bright. He will be facing discipline and probable dismissal from the Navy.
I mention this to raise the issue of free speech.
Clearly an employee of an organization (commercial, military, or otherwise) accepts as a consequence of employment certain conditions, requirements, and restrictions that may be placed on employees by the institution.
A dress code for work is an example. The Royal Navy requires certain dress while performing certain tasks. It seeks for a “uniform” look. Other enterprises (commercial) do the same, although the uniform in business has a broader and usually more flexible look. This year’s “power tie” may be gone next season, but the code remains as a code.
Language is another example. “This call may be recorded for quality assurance purposes.” Right. So, no matter how annoying you, the customer, may become during the call the business continues to expect a certain standard from the poor, harassed, and probably underpaid, call center employee. “Have a nice day, you rude, ignorant, son of a bitch,” however understandable a sign-off at call’s end, is not going to cut it with the company’s QA team.
I could go on, but these two illustrations are enough to illustrate the limits that employment in an organization can place on an individual. The individual accepts these as part of the terms of employment.
nobody can limit freedom of thought. (Not yet anyhow!) The call center employee can think I am an effing idiot when I speak, but simply may not say so or talk to me as if I were.
when the employee breaks one of the organization’s behavior codes, the invocation of otherwise applicable civil rights cannot be invoked in defense of the breach. Their applicability is part of the contract of employment, as it were.
Thus, whistle-blowing, while not in any sense a breach of civil rights, can and should expect to be regarded as a breach of contract with the full force of discipline of such an action.
Of more persistent challenge, I think, is the issue of freedom of listening.
I am not in the Royal Navy. I no more am required to dress like a sailor than I am to salute an admiral. To me an admiral is just another dude in the crowd. (That may irk admirals, by the way, but so be it. Want your boots licked? Go back aboard!) So, what about listening to Able Seaman McNeilly?
I have a right to listen even as he has no right to be telling.
And so we confront the murky interface of rights and duties. It is an axiom of ethical theory that if I have a right to do such and so, then you have a duty to allow me to exercise that right. From this axiom flow the many forms of the social contract: civil, corporate, public, and private.
The many social contracts each of us live under every day (from within the family, to a club we freely choose to join, to our work place, to the market place and street) bump into one another with sometime startling consequences.
The case of Able Seaman McNeilly is simply one illustration of the choppy seas at these interface points.