Can You Lose Your Illinois Professional License For Making Racist Comments?



America’s current and long-overdue reckoning with systemic racism is manifesting itself in countless ways. From the millions marching in the streets to the pressure placed on corporations, executives, entertainers, and others to acknowledge and apologize for racist words and actions, it is clear that silence is no longer enough.

Similarly, those with far lower profiles are also being called out for their casual racism. Every week, seemingly, another so-called “Karen” becomes the unwitting star of a viral video in which they are seen flexing their privilege, entitlement, and prejudice by hurling insults at an African-American or other person of color. Birdwatching, sitting by the pool at a hotel where they are registered guests, doing some repairs on their own home – these are the transgressions for which they face the wrath of an angry white person making false claims of assault and calling 911 for absolutely no reason at all. As a matter of fact, after I started writing this post, yet another such video was burning up the internet

You Can Lose Your Job For Racism, But What About Your License?

But internet justice can be swift and unmerciful. Those whose repulsive conduct goes viral often find themselves out of a job, disowned and disavowed by employers who do not want their reputations tarnished by the racism of one of their employees. 

In the vast majority of states, private employers are well within their rights to fire an employee for being perceived as or for actually being a racist and/or Trump supporter, expressing other political or social views, or for pretty much any reason other than race, sex, religion, or membership in another legally protected other class.

But while you can lose your job for being a racist, can you also lose your professional license in Illinois for being one?

Is Racism “Unprofessional,” “Dishonorable,” and “Harmful”?

The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR) is a governmental body, which means that any adverse action based on the exercise of a professional’s free speech rights implicates the First Amendment. But the question of whether and how personal, off-the-clock, and non-criminal conduct can lead to professional license disciplinary action is still tricky.

The laws and rules governing all professions in Illinois contain many specific bases for disciplinary action, almost all of which are based on acts and omissions directly related to their professional responsibilities. But some licensing acts and underlying rules contain vague and ambiguous language which could theoretically be used by IDFPR to institute disciplinary proceedings for private conduct.

For example, a nurse is subject to disciplinary action under Section 70-5(b)(7) of the Illinois Nurse Practice Act for “engaging in dishonorable, unethical or unprofessional conduct of a character likely to deceive, defraud or harm the public…”

Note that this section of the Act doesn’t discuss deceiving, defrauding, or harming a patient; it talks about “the public.” Is chanting racist slogans or baselessly calling 911 on an African-American “dishonorable” or “unprofessional” conduct likely to “harm” the public? The IDFPR (and most other folks) may see it that way, even if the First Amendment may ultimately thwart the Board if they try to discipline a licensee on that basis. But politics and free speech issues aside, other private conduct can put licensed professionals at risk for disciplinary action.

In Texas, for example, licensing boards have taken a very aggressive approach towards off-the-clock, legal, and harmless conduct which they believe implicates professional “fitness” or “judgment.” As one attorney in Texas described it, using such private behavior as the basis for discipline means that “anything you could do at any point could be considered unprofessional. They really do believe they have the ability to legislate morality.”

In Illinois, all kinds of personal behavior could arguably be scrutinized if a particular investigator or regulator at the IDFPR decides to look at things through that prism. Sexual conduct, controversial parenting techniques, a screaming tirade at a store clerk, internet searches – all legal, all having nothing to do with job performance – they may be fair game.

It would be serious overreach by the IDFPR if they were to take action based on such conduct, but as I have written before, the disciplinary process in Illinois can be manifestly unfair and stacked against you. Experienced and aggressive prosecutors have your license in their sights, and the hearing officer who will determine your fate is bringing their own biases to your case.

Everything we do in life has consequences. Those who are or act like racists should be prepared for the fallout from such repugnant beliefs and behavior. This can include the loss of their professional license. If decency, empathy, and a sense of shared humanity can’t change their views, perhaps the threat of losing their livelihood will.

Louis Fine: Chicago Professional License Defense Attorney

As a former Chief Prosecuting Attorney and administrative law judge for IDFPR, I have seen the serious consequences that an adverse enforcement decision can have on professionals who suddenly find their future in disarray. I understand how and why the Department decides to pursue investigations, how it handles negotiations, and how to approach formal proceedings in a way that gives my clients the best possible chance of a positive and expeditious outcome.

Please give me a call at (312) 236-2433 or fill out my online form to arrange for your free initial consultation. Together, we will get you back to your clients and your career.