Scared that your employer might fire you because of something that you put online? It's a fear that a lot of employees have, and one that remains largely untested. While many companies have specific policies banning employees from keeping blogs, writing about certain things or posting vitriolic comments about their coworkers, a lot of the boundaries detailing what is allowed and what isn't are still hazy. It's not just where, when and how you're publishing content online, but who you are as well.
A case that came out of Connecticut last month is shaping this rule even more after a court ruled against the American Medical Response company in the state, which fired an employee after she posted a negative remark about an employee on her Facebook page. The ruling said the company's posting policies were too broad and that the employee was protected by "protected concerted activity," or as a Tech Republic article calls it, "activity for the mutual aid and protection of employees, like discussions about wages or working conditions." (As the same article states though, the case hasn't been fully adjudicated yet.)
Legal advisers are suggesting that companies tighten up their policies and specify what is allowed and what isn't in order to avoid running into the same problem. But while that's all well and good and helps define the role of an average employee working with a fairly standard business operation, what about when we're dealing with different employees whose role in society goes well beyond that of the worker bee — like, say, teachers?
A Pennsylvanian schoolteacher has been suspended from her job because of a blogging site she kept up over a number of months that sometimes crossed the border from her personal life into her professional life. In the instances where the teacher, Natalie Monroe, mentions her students, the language is less than kind. An Associated Press article listed several comments she made where describing her students as "disengaged, lazy whiners" who "curse, discuss drugs, talk back, argue for grades, complain about everything, fancy themselves entitled to whatever they desire, and are just generally annoying."
Before we delve into the murky issue of whether teachers' blogs are protected under free speech rights and what kind of leeway they have in that area though, it is first important to look at Monroe's side of the story as well. To her credit, out of the 84 blog posts she put up over the course of the year or so that her blog operated, only 24 referred to school happenings — and out of those, only "some of them were actually focused on it," according to a recent blog post in which Monroe defended her actions. The blog also made no specific references to the kids involved at the school or the name of the school either — as well as Monroe's location, the school's location, her colleagues or any other specific information that would have given her away outright. In fact, she went by the name of "Natalie M" on the blog, which was discovered about a year after its release by students and parents who took the matter to the school.
Monroe's attorney presents the case as an issue of free speech; one in which Monroe should be allowed to express her opinions in any matter on a blog. The first problem that I run into though with this case is whether the school district had a specific Internet policy outlining the use of private blogs by teachers. We saw in the Connecticut case that the defendant prevailed because the language of the company's policy was too vague. And unless there is some certain stipulation in her teaching contract, I think that Monroe should be allowed to express her opinions on a private blog that she is not using on work time regardless ... but where the situation becomes hazy is whether a teacher should have the right to post on a blog under the precursor of "free speech" when that speech entails a few negative comments about her students.
The dangerous area here is how teachers should behave online and how school districts should be prepared to deal with issues like this. Online, teachers are already held to higher scrutiny than many other professionals. Teachers who post party pictures or profanity on Facebook profiles or other social media profiles readily available to the public are in extreme danger of losing out on teaching positions because of their close relationship with students and the nature of their profession to work with children. As an educator, Monroe is held to high standards, and openly berating students on a not-so-public blogging site is far from professional behavior.
Without knowing the exact specifics of the school district's Internet policy, it's tough to say if her actions were permissible by those standards or not. Certainly by basic standards of free speech, she should be allowed to say what she wants; I don't think the comments were specific enough to qualify as defamation, since she kept so much of her posts vague. But school districts have the right to establish principles when it comes to what is allowed from their professional staffers and what's not in a professional context.