Discrimination has been in the public vocabulary since the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board (1954). The notion that people ought not to act against others based on certain characteristics began with race, but quickly extended to other aspects of life, such as gender, religion, physical or mental disabilities and sexual orientation. The majority of cases about discrimination focus on membership in a school, organization, or company. Stephanie Cannon’s story follows these trends, but her case is about the limits of such legal discussions rather than an application or extension of such rules.
Stephanie Cannon was hired as a receptionist at the Frauenshuh Cancer Center of Park Nicollet Health Services in Minnesota 5 weeks ago. Cannon had been a smoker for the last 18 years, and her co-workers and supervisors could smell the cigarettes on her even though she didn’t smoke at work. The cancer center warned Cannon about the smell. She attempted to solve the problem by showering and spraying air fresher on her clothes, but the smell still wouldn’t come off before she got to work. The cancer center subsequently terminated her employment.
Cannon alleges that the company fired her for smelling like a cigarette while at work. She believes that her former employers had no right to determine what she can or can’t do in her private time off. Cannon made an effort to correct the problem, but Frauenshuh still terminated her for behavior she never engaged in while serving as their receptionist. Minnesota has a law that employers can’t fire someone for engaging in legal behavior off premises during off-work hours. Cannon had been given resources for quitting smoking, but that decision is for Cannon alone to make. The hospital cannot force that decision on their employees.
Frauenshuh Cancer Center, meanwhile, has gathered the support of a most unusual ally. In an ironic twist, the ACLU, which normally defends individual liberties in cases like this, is defending the cancer center instead. The ACLU offers two arguments to Cannon’s claims: that the cancer center, as a private enterprise, has every right to fire Cannon. Private companies are subject to less restrictions and regulations then government entities. Private companies also have rights and among those rights is the freedom to choose who their employees are. These rights can only be violated for the most important of reasons. Smelling like a cigarette is not an important reason. The second argument is that Cannon was engaging in behavior which presented some danger to those within her immediate vicinity. In essence, Cannon’s right to smoke “ends where other people’s noses begin”. There is plenty of evidence and studies that second or even third-hand smoking poses health risks to those close to the smoker.
Although both arguments presented by the ACLU are valid counter-arguments to Cannon’s allegations, there is a flaw to both of them. The first reason, that the cancer center has fewer restrictions as a private enterprise and is therefore subject to a lower standard, may be true, but even at a lower threshold of evidence, Cannon could still win. Federal employment laws forbid discrimination against those with disabilities and a savory attorney could convince a court that addiction to nicotine is a disability. The ACLU’s public safety reasoning is a stronger argument, but the danger presented ought to be more immediate then potential for future health issues. Although smelling like a cigarette could pose a greater threat in a cancer center than it would in a normal office, the danger is not clear and present to the point where a patient would relapse.
Although the ACLU’s position is not perfect, Cannon’s argument is actually extremely flawed. She asserts that Frauenshuh Cancer Center has no right to determine what she can and cannot do in her private life. Despite the resources given to her for quitting smoking, Cannon’s assessment of the situation is actually reversed. The cancer center is not entering her private life; Cannon is bringing her private life to the cancer center. Although Minnesota may not permit employers from firing someone for what they do in their own times, the fact that Cannon smells like a cigarette means that her private life is not entirely private.