Advances in technology have led to significant changes in the workplace. Although technology may increase productivity, it can also cause new problems. For example, employers’ concerns about “bad publicity” for their businesses once focused on the media and little else. Now, however, many employees publish their own blogs that are publicly available to anyone with an Internet connection. Similarly, social networking websites such as Facebook allow people to broadcast a message to dozens--if not hundreds--of other people with one click of a mouse. These new outlets can cause problems for employers and employees alike.
Q: Why would my employer care what I write on a blog or social networking site?
A: Your employer’s reputation may be badly damaged if you write negative comments about your employment or your employer’s goods or services. Also, regardless of what you may write, your employer may be concerned about the loss of your productive time if you access blogs or social networking sites at work. Even if you only access these websites on your own time and from your own computer, your postings about work-related matters can cause concern for many different reasons. Just as you should not be sharing confidential information about your employer’s new product or an upcoming deal while talking to friends at church or at a party, web-based disclosures present the same problems--and on a much larger scale.
Q: Can my employer discipline me for things I say on a blog or on a social networking site?
A: In many circumstances, yes. Employers can establish policies for their employees, and these policies may include limits on blogging or other public disclosures that may affect an organization’s public image. In one high-profile incident, the author of a blog called “Diary of a Dysfunctional Flight Attendant” was fired after she posted risqué photos of herself in her airline uniform. Another case involved an employee who lost his job after criticizing company management on a website; based on his “disloyal, disparaging, and injurious” comments about company management, the court upheld the employee’s termination. In some cases, employers have even been able to obtain the identities of employees who try to remain anonymous.
Q: Doesn’t the First Amendment prohibit my employer from limiting my right to free speech?
A: The First Amendment applies to the government, not to private employers. And even though certain public employers are subject to the First Amendment, it does not necessarily protect employees from the consequences of things they say. In one case, a man who worked for a sheriff’s department was fired after he posted comments on the Internet comparing the sheriff and co-workers to Hitler and the Nazis. The court rejected his First Amendment claims because the comments were found to be defamatory and likely to cause disruption at work.
This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was prepared by Justin D. Flamm, an attorney practicing labor and employment law in the Cincinnati office of Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP.