Littleton, CO (KUSA) - A maintenance supervisor at Arapahoe Community College is on paid administrative leave after sending politically and racially charged emails using his work email account.
College officials say they got a complaint from someone who reports to the supervisor, after they received an email comparing President Barack Obama to a chimpanzee.
9Wants to Know obtained copies of the email, which contains a photo of President Ronald Reagan feeding milk to a chimpanzee with a caption that reads "Rare photo of Ronald Reagan babysitting Barack Obama in early 1962."
College President Diana Doyle is not amused by the joke.
"We don't tolerate that here," Doyle said. "It doesn't really matter that it was about the president. It doesn't really matter who it was about."
Doyle ordered an independent investigation of the supervisor.
The emails would not have led to this kind of attention if the worker had emailed some friends from his personal email account at home, but experts say your right to hold and share your opinion is limited in the workplace.
"If they're sending it out on the employer's email that protection vanishes," said employment lawyer Lorrie Ray with the Mountain States Employers Council.
That applies whether or not you work for the government.
Private-sector companies have just as much right to define how you can use their email systems. Ray says employers in making sure you don't make your co-workers uncomfortable when they clock in.
The difference is that government emails can wind up in the media through public records requests.
"If you send something in an email pretend that you've posted it on a billboard downtown," Ray said.
The chimp photo email presents more problems because it goes beyond politics.
"[That] email is a joke that is racist and that's a problem for a number of reasons," Ray said. "That can become racial harassment."
She says employers put themselves at risk of lawsuits if they do nothing to respond to cases like these.
Ray says another email the man sent criticizing the president on the economy was also a bad idea, especially since he sent it to people he supervises.
"It's a case of intent versus impact. You may be intending one thing when you send it, but the impact on the person who receives it might be completely different," Ray said.
Companies can protect themselves from problems like the one that arose in this case by establishing clearly written e-mail policies to avoid problems like this one. Ray stresses that it's important to stick to the policy and make sure everyone in the company know what the rules are.
9NEWS is withholding the supervisor's name because this story is intended to help raise awareness of the issues around free speech in the workplace, not to expose the individual in this particular case.