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Tuesday, 12 September 2017 12:00

The First Amendment and Social Media: Are You Protected?

By - Michael Rader

The advent of social media has allowed people to communicate with each other in an unprecedented manner. It is now possible to chat with someone on the other side of the globe in mere seconds. Families that are scattered across the country can stay in touch with each other daily. Yes, social media has changed communication forever.

That doesn’t mean, however, that social media isn’t without its pitfalls. I could get into internet/social media addiction and decreased productivity at the workplace, but those are topics for another time. I’d like to instead focus on social media’s ability to make individuals feel brave and insulated from the repercussions of their posts. People that would likely not share political beliefs or express racist, sexist, or homophobic rhetoric in person suddenly lose that filter when safe behind their computer screens. Big deal, right? Aren’t social media posts covered under the First Amendment?

I can be a jerk, the First Amendment says so

The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Yes, social media posts are covered under the First Amendment, meaning you can post just about anything you desire. Many people erroneously believe, however, that the amendment protects them against reprisal for their verbal or visual expressions. On the contrary. The First Amendment clearly protects freedom of speech, but it says nothing about repercussions. Go ahead and post that political cartoon or rant about Trump’s stance on immigrants. Just don’t be surprised if you lose your job for it.

Calm down, it was just a joke

Let us start with what should be obvious: racist, sexist, or homophobic content will put you in hot water almost immediately. When you agreed to work for your company, you gave them an implicit agreement that you would represent their brand honorably and without controversy. A company’s image is vitally important to their success. As such, companies will protect that image at all costs.

It would be prudent to make one thing clear: you can’t be fired if your employer simply disagrees with your political affiliation or your position on an issue. For you to be terminated, it must be determined that your social media post can damage the reputation of your company. The problem is trying to define that which can “damage the reputation.” Each individual business may define this a bit differently, which is why it is always best to err on the side of caution. If a post may potentially lead to discipline, just don’t post it.

Is there any protection for me?

There may be protection from reprisal depending on where you work. Let it be said, however, that if you use your employer’s technology to access social media, the company can access what you’ve posted. It may seem innocuous to take a quick peak at Facebook or respond to a Tweet during your workday, but depending on where and how you do so, it may in fact be a big deal.

As far as political or controversial posts, those working for the federal government or a union has a bit more protection, “bit” being the key word. Again, keep in mind that your posts reflect your employer and they will react as such. If you are a private employee, the First Amendment offers no protection from being fired for something you’ve posted. Let me say that again, the First Amendment offers no protection. In other words, you have the freedom to post anything you want, but your employer has every right to fire you for that post. If you are starting your own business, you must be hyper vigilant about your image. Controversial posts can harm that image, which in turn can decimate your business.

When in doubt, don’t

Does this mean that you can never again be involved in social media platforms? Not at all. You simply need to be aware of the affect your posts may have on your personal and professional lives. Just because you can express yourself, doesn’t mean you should.

Human Resources Professional Laura M. Brown offers the following guidelines for social media posts. Following these tips can help you stay off your employer’s chopping block.

  • Review your company’s social media policy as well as any agreements you signed when you were hired. Every company should have a social media policy, although smaller companies may not. If there is no policy available, take a few minutes to discuss the issue with either your HR department or your boss.
  • Make it explicit that you don’t represent your company’s views. This one is a bit tricky if you go back to the earlier statement that you always represent your company. Stating up front that you don’t represent your company will still not protect you if your post is particularly inexcusable or inappropriate.
  • Be scrupulously honest and vet for accuracy. Many people have fallen into the trap of reposting content that turns out to be false. It can be easy to read a headline and act hastily, but you must ensure that everything you post is accurate and appropriate. It only takes a few minutes but it can save you from finding yourself in a great deal of trouble.
  • Don’t post offensive content. That seems simple, but it isn’t always. A good rule of thumb is to run potential posts through the “Head of HR test.” If you were the head of your HR department, how would you view the post? If there is even a remote possibility that your post may be construed as inappropriate or offensive, don’t post it.
  • When in doubt, don’t. It is really that simple. Not everything you feel or believe needs to be shared with the world. If there is any doubt in your mind that what you are about to post is harmless, simply don’t post it.

Think before you post

Social media is a positive thing. When not used properly, however, it can destroy reputations and lead to unemployment. Your posts can also affect future opportunities. More and more companies are viewing an applicant’s social media pages as part of the interview process. As a result, it is vitally important to ask yourself how a future employer would react to your Facebook page. Would your Twitter feed help or hurt your chances of being hired?

Whether you are applying for a job or currently working for a company, always remember that the internet never sleeps. What you post is out there for all to read. Even deleting a post doesn’t completely remove it. As a result, you need to stop and think before you post anything, especially if you are doing so in an emotional state. Social media has gotten many people in serious trouble. Don’t put yourself at risk.

Last modified on Monday, 30 November -0001 12:00

Michael Rader

With over ten years in web development and design, Michael Rader has expertise and technical know-how. But more than a skilled technician, he is an entrepreneur and innovator who helps startup’s and new businesses identify and define their future with a unique, brandable business name. Michael Rader is the founder and CEO of Brandroot®, a leading .com domain name marketplace. He currently lives in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii where he operates the business and authors a blog dedicated to naming and brand name establishment.