Magazine article Information Today

Fired over Facebook

Magazine article Information Today

Fired over Facebook

Article excerpt

Facebook has become the nearly ubiquitous identifier for social networking and social media. A platform for exchanging thoughts, comments, rants, raves, images, faves, and digs with friends near and far. Facebook friends can range from old high school classmates you haven't seen or heard from for 30 years to the person who occupies the next cubicle. With its unrestricted platform for free speech, Facebook has emerged as the 21st-century coffee klatch, family newsletter, soapbox, and water cooler. Users can say what they want about whatever subject they want, whether it's last night's episode of American Idol, their sons' little league games, their daughters' annoying boyfriends, or the latest boneheaded decisions of their bosses.


But Facebook isn't quite the same as a water cooler, where a casual conversation among three or four people will likely remain within that group. Facebook, as with email and blogging, can spread to all friends far and wide, and perhaps wider, as reposting and resending can be done with a click. Two recently and highly publicized cases involving employees dismissed or suspended for their Facebook postings illustrate the risks of Facebook posts and help to outline the rights of both employees and employers on the use and monitoring of Facebook.

Dispute With a Supervisor

The first case involved an emergency medical technician (EMT) in Connecticut in 2009. After a dispute with her supervisor, she posted an angry and mocking description of the dispute and her supervisor on her Facebook page. Fellow employees reportedly responded to the initial post with similar critical comments. When word of the post reached her employer, she was terminated.

The second case involved a Pennsylvania schoolteacher who posted comments critical of her students on her blog. The blog did not identify the teacher, school, or students by full name, and the comments were fairly generalized, saying that students were often "out of control" or "frightfully dim." However, someone reposted blog entries to Facebook in February, where they went viral, and the teacher was subsequently suspended. In both of these cases, the initial posts were made during non-work hours on personal computers using personal internet service.

Privacy and Free Speech Rights

The cases have raised questions and debate about the privacy rights of employees as well as the rights and obligations of employers. It is fairly well-settled that employers have the right to monitor employees' email, web activity, and computer use when using employer-provided computers and internet access. But to what degree does that extend to purely private, off-duty activities that involve an employer or employment issues? Can employers monitor or investigate the Facebook pages of their employees? Do employees have free speech or privacy rights that protect their Facebook postings? Should employers have policies regulating employee Facebook, blog, and other online social media activity?

Neither of these two cases answers these questions, but they can provide some insight. In the Connecticut EMT case, the employer had a written policy that prohibited employees from "making disparaging, discriminatory, or defamatory comments when discussing the Company, or the employee's superiors, co-workers and/or competitors." The employee's union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) asserting that the broad language of the policy would prevent employees from participating in union-related activity, which is protected by federal law. …

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