Elon Musk may call himself a 'free speech absolutist' but at least five SpaceX employees have been fired after criticising the billionaire's online behaviour, according to reports.
The controversial CEO revealed his stance on free speech after launching his bid to buy Twitter for US$44 billion, declaring that he would give former US President Donald Trump his account back.
Trump was suspended permanently in January 2021 due to the risk of him using his platform to incite violence, shortly after the attack by right-wing extremists on the US Capitol building.
However, the same benefit of the doubt hasn't been offered to some of the employees at Musk's space company, with at least five losing their jobs after circulating an open letter to executives which was critical of his personal behaviour.
The leaked letter, first reported by website The Verge, came from a number of employees "across the spectra of gender, ethnicity, seniority and technical roles".
"Elon's behaviour in the public sphere is a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us, particularly in recent weeks," it stated.
"As our CEO and most prominent spokesperson, Elon is seen as the face of SpaceX - every Tweet that Elon sends is a de facto public statement by the company.
"It is critical to make clear to our teams and to our potential talent pool that his messaging does not reflect our work, our mission, or our values. SpaceX must swiftly and explicitly separate itself from Elon's personal brand."
A follow-up from the website said in less than a day and a half, more than 400 SpaceX employees had co-signed the letter before it was taken offline and some of those involved were fired.
"While the document ultimately got 404 signatures, many more people reached out to those who shared the letter on Signal, in person, and through Teams, saying they would sign if they could afford to get fired at the moment, according to a person involved," The Verge reported.
That proved prescient with SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell sending out a company-wide email announcing the sackings and condemning the letter.
"We have too much critical work to accomplish and no need for this kind of overreaching activism - our current leadership team is more dedicated to ensuring we have a great and ever-improving work environment than any I have seen in my 35-year career," she wrote.
She then claimed the open letter, rather than Musk's behaviour, was a source of distraction.
Shotwell also suggested that pressure had been applied to get employees for them to sign, saying some had felt uncomfortable and intimidated.
However, that was denied by two of those involved in writing it, saying they had just posted the letter on internal channels, asking for support.
"There was no pressure applied to anyone to collect signatures. The open letter either stands on its own or it doesn't," one told The Verge on condition of anonymity.
That might not be the last SpaceX hears about the issue, with some legal experts in the US saying fired employees would have a strong case if they filed suit with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
"To be covered, an action has to be concerted (certainly the case here) and it has to relate to working conditions," said Charlotte Garden, a law professor at Seattle University.
"It strikes me as a letter that is mainly about working conditions. I think the NLRB would see it that way too," she told The Verge.
The Communications Workers of America (CWA) also condemned the decision and hoped it would lead to workers showing their power.
"Elon Musk says he's committed to free speech - except when his employees are exercising their legally protected right to speak out about their working conditions," the union said.
"We hope this will be a rallying point for workers at SpaceX."