Employees’ Speech Protected by Facebook


Photo from Mashable

Posted by Jackie Wallentin

Jim Smith: “My boss sucks. He doesn’t know how to do his job. I hate this company. Let’s boycott. Petition to impeach?”

Jim’s boss sees this post on Facebook. He sees that other employees have also commented, agreeing that he fails at his job. He sees that nine people have liked the status and that many more will before the night is over. Can he fire Jim for emotional distress or hateful speech?

According to The National Labor Relations Board, Jim’s speech is protected. The independent agency has declared Facebook posts as protected speech within the First Amendment, even speech that is hurtful or negative.

The statement developed out of a lawsuit involving such a case. NLRB represented an employee after her boss fired her for a post containing vulgar language about the company’s management. The comments were done outside the work place on her personal computer. Her termination was unwarrented. The agency says prohibiting such social media is a violation of labor laws to protect employees’ right to discuss work, salaries and conditions.

Although I would never suggest one relieve frustration about work in an open forum, I do believe employees’ speech should be protected. Employees have the right to voice their opinions in the workplace. What makes the Internet any different?

The line between work and home blurs with each new social media site, phone app or conversation website. Employees friend colleagues on Facebook. People tweet about their workdays from the office. On lunch breaks, some may upload photos to Flickr or write a quick blog. Where does work begin and social media end? Can you only have one at a time?

I don’t believe employers have the right to enforce policies for speech made about them using social media. Such regulations would detract from the workplace, cause unnecessary barriers between employees and those above.

A simple solution: basic etiquette. Employees should avoid using social media on the company’s clock excessively, except if social media is essential to the job, of course. If negative comments are imminent, one should discuss them with a colleague privately or send an email. Broadcasting one’s dislike or contempt for a boss or fellow office worker in a public online forum is unprofessional.

With the age of social media quickly infiltrating all aspect’s of our lives, will there be a time when we are unable to turn our social media ‘selves’ off? Has that time already come?

For those unable to control themselves, find comfort in the First Amendment. Although Thomas Jefferson never had a Facebook, his idea of liberty protects our right to free speech and protects us against our own stupid comments.



5 responses to “Employees’ Speech Protected by Facebook

  1. I think employers have every right to set ground rules for what is said about the business on social media sites because posting something on Facebook and especially Twitter is more like sending a message out to the public. You can’t easily control who sees it. It could get to anybody you may have friended.

    If the statement is detrimental to the company’s image, it can do plenty of damage. Basic lesson for all employees: don’t jeopardize your employer’s image.

    Employees whine about working conditions, rules and bosses all the time in break rooms. If you trust the people you’re with, you can talk freely and know that your bosses won’t hear because there are walls. Well, the Internet has very few walls. The walls that do exist sometimes fall down. Facebook is not private and Twitter is basically a bunch of people on soap boxes on one busy street corner. It’s all more public than private.

    Employers choose who to hire based on how you conduct yourself on Facebook. I think they should have a say in how you conduct yourself as one of their employees.

  2. A lot of it’s on the employers. They need to make clear that this stuff isn’t allowed while on the job. Even though the employee should probably know that as well, the employers need to lay it out. A lot of Twitter and Facebook is becoming more public. It isn’t the most controllable method of communication. Even news stories have been made out of tweets by people. Like Tim said, don’t jeopardize the employer, because in the end, they control your job and what happens there. Even though the speech is protected, if they catch wind of something they don’t like, while they may not be able to fire you, they can sure do a few other things instead.

  3. I appreciate your argument and differing viewpoint. I definitely see where you are coming from. I know that employers do look at candidate’s Facebooks, Twitters, etc. and that to gain a job, one’s online profiles must be clean and presentable. I guess my distinction is after one gets the job. I agree that statements made online can damage a company’s image. I understand that one must respect others while at work or away, and I advocate for mutual respect. But I am uneasy to approve the total restriction of one’s free speech online because of an occupation.

  4. What an interesting situation you pointed out Jackie. I completely agree that employees’ speech should be protected and I’m glad that it is. People should have the right to voice their opinion and it’s good to know that the law is modern enough to even include facebook. As journalists we must always protect the first amendment.

  5. Jessica Anderson

    I like your solution of basic etiquette. This entire dilemma could be resolved if people would act respectfully and save their critiques for personal conversations with their bosses or fellow employees. Leaving a paper trail is never a good idea. I think that using social media to criticize bosses or coworkers is just the tip of the iceberg though. I anticipate it will really blow up with harassment cases.

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