11/09/10 169 W - + 8 - 6 Freedom of Speech and Facebook

Heard about this? Company fires worker for criticizing supervisors in Facebook posting. National Labor Relations Board says that's illegal. And it happens to be an ambulance company. The New York Times had this story yesterday, as did many other outlets.

What are implications for the fire service, and fire service managers grappling with social media policies? Dave Statter's already there, weighing some initial thoughts as well as linking to the Times story.

It also makes Mr. Blogger think about this Cary News story from last week, where the Cary chapter of the North Carolina Police Benevolent Association has questioned the town's internal media policy. That is, the rules for town employees with regard to contact with the media.

Internal media policies are old hat, as are consequence for speaking out about one's employer. What's new are the increasing communication channels at people's fingertips. It sure is easier than ever to raise your voice, speak out on this, or be cited for that. Interesting times.

...and posting stuff on a certain local fire service blog… Hey, it’s not asking too much, but looking through my good ole rose colored glasses, we would hope that folks would keep social media activities positive, or at a minimum “constructively critical” (if a negativity exists), yet not be derogatory. Vent negativeness in person, not online. Albeit, Face Book is especially entertaining when people post their personal lives on there!
A.C. Rich - 11/09/10 - 22:35

“Freedom of speech” does not give people the absolute right to tear a company down, through slander, that “gave them a job” publicly without possible consequence. Especially if the employer is following the law, safety guidlines and adhering to their policies that they make. There are protections in place to be able to discuss policys and working conditions with unions and coworkers and other laws to keep employers from abusing employees but damn where does it end. If i am an employer and I have an employee the PUBLICLY criticizes the company and company management in a negative way why would i want them. Employers have to have rights too! They give you a job!! I’m sure there are alot of people out there who would want a job right now. EVERYONE has things about their job or employer that they might not like or agree totally with but nothing is perfect. Social media is public its not like your venting to a co-worker in private, plus what you say is put in writing.
gen3fire - 11/10/10 - 12:25

...and NC does not recognize organized labor. We are “at will.”
A.C. Rich - 11/11/10 - 16:51

This is a pretty good commentary on the issue here, http://tinyurl.com/26cguay

Basically, the question seems to be: does a social media channel like Facebook constitute a protected community of workers, for people speaking therein?
Legeros - 11/11/10 - 18:00

In my OPINION, and until defined by law or the courts, it is not a protected community. Like KC stated above, you are responsible for what you say, yet all too often it seems the 1st Amendment is twisted to benefit individual agendas. As I read, libel and/or offensive speech is not actually the intent of the 1st Amendment so it’s a fine line for the courts to define – and there is A LOT of interpretation out there. So, where to draw the line??? I believe if an employee or member has a past of documented conduct related issues on the job or within the organization, it’s an easy case for punitive action from the organization within their established policies. Even this is debatable. Maybe our local Juris Doctors can define more for us… I’m out of my league now. ...law.
A.C. Rich - 11/11/10 - 19:31

I’ll whip out my JD and give some free (worth exactly what you paid for it) legal opinion. First, we have two different legal worlds in the fire service in Wake County – some firefighters work for a governmental entity, some work for private organizations. The rules are very different for the two.

First, you’ve gotta remember what the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are all about. They are to protect citizens from actions of the GOVERNMENT – so it’s virtually impossible for a private organization to “violate constitutional rights.” Some of these rights we want to enforce against everybody, so there are new laws – like laws against discrimination in privately owned hotels and restaurants. Discriminate against somebody because of race or religion as a private organization, you don’t violate “rights” you violate the statute.

On the private side, in an at-will state like NC, the agency pretty much wins, unless their action is found to be “against public policy” by a court. An employee talking about corruption, embezzlement, etc. would probably find some protection in the courts. The problem is that you can go broke asserting your case in court – lawyers who do that kind of stuff aren’t cheap.

On the public side, courts have generally held that speech of public employees is protected, provided they are speaking on a “matter of public concern.” For example, an employee who spoke out about how staffing changes would impact the ISO rating of the community would be protected. An employee who spread untrue rumors about somebody else would not, nor an employee who “ranted” about how he was treated badly by an officer. Those matters are typically “private concerns” not protected by the force of the government. The visual is this – if the “speech” is something that you would bring to the county commission, town council, etc., then it is probably protected. If it’s just “sounding off” about private or internal matters, it’s probably not.

Public or private, it’s never protected to lie. But then, our parents all told us that anyway…..

Hope that helps
SkipK - 11/15/10 - 21:00

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