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Sixth Circuit Says Private Employers Not Subject to First Amendment Claims From Anti-Vax Workers

    Client Alerts
  • March 16, 2023

When a social media platform bans a celebrity or politician due to violation of its rules and standards, we frequently hear that individual complain that the action violates their First Amendment rights to free speech. Every first-year law student learns that the First Amendment applies only to state action, meaning efforts by a government agency to curtail speech rights. Private companies are free to manage their businesses as they see fit, even if such steps limit an individual’s ability to disseminate their views.

This bedrock legal principle has not stopped some individuals and groups from trying to expand the definition of state action to include private and quasi-private organizations. Earlier this week, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an attempt by employees opposed to a private employer’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate who asserted that this action violated their First Amendment rights to religious expression.

In Ciraci v. J.M. Smucker Co., the defendant is a federal contractor, providing peanut butter, jelly, and other food products to various federal agencies. When the federal government adopted its COVID-19 vaccination mandate for federal contractors, Smucker’s adopted a policy following these requirements, while providing exceptions for medical and religious reasons. Regardless, a group of employees sued Smucker’s, alleging that the employer violated their First Amendment rights when it denied their religious exception requests.

The Sixth Circuit had little trouble affirming dismissal of the suit. The court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that federal contractors are state actors because they act in conjunction with government agencies and are coerced by rules that apply to such contractors. The court concluded that private employers do not become state actors because they follow the law. The government never directed Smucker’s to vaccinate its employees, and in fact recognized a religious exemption to its vaccination mandate.

The plaintiffs in this case had the clear options of suing their employer under Title VII, or suing the federal government to challenge the contractor vaccination mandate. This suit appears to have been filed for the purpose of expanding First Amendment protections to a category of private employers. By rejecting these claims, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the distinction between private and public employers with respect to protected constitutional rights.