Some news orgs’ social media policies are on shaky legal ground

The New York Times | Poynter
If your social media policy prevents employees from saying anything bad about the company, it might be going too far.

The National Labor Relations Board has weighed in on several cases where employees lost their jobs because of social media activity, Steven Greenhouse reports.

The board is standing up for the rights of workers to discuss wages and working conditions. The legal term is “concerted activity” — when workers take action to collectively discuss their employment terms — and the board says that’s just as protected on social media as it is in the company break room.

A New York nonprofit, for example, was wrong to fire workers who pushed back online against a coworker’s suggestion they weren’t working hard enough, Greenhouse writes. But Greenhouse writes the NLRB “had far less sympathy for a police reporter at The Arizona Daily Star.”

Frustrated by a lack of news, the reporter posted several Twitter comments. One said, “What?!?!?! No overnight homicide. … You’re slacking, Tucson.” Another began, “You stay homicidal, Tucson.”

The newspaper fired the reporter, and board officials found the dismissal legal, saying the posts were offensive, not concerted activity and not about working conditions.

Also not protected: A bartender who “posted on Facebook, calling his customers ‘rednecks’ and saying he hoped they choked on glass as they drove home drunk.”

Employers could protect themselves by being more specific in their social media policies, a labor lawyer tells Greenhouse, but another says the rules are still unclear.

The NLRB has dinged companies for “overly broad” restrictions on online speech before. Last summer, Freedom Communications placed Colorado Springs Gazette reporter Barrett Tryon on administrative leave after he refused to remove a Facebook posting about the company’s potential sale. Tryon decided to leave the paper after he was reinstated. He now works at Fox 4 in Kansas City.

We explored these legal issues in more depth in this previous post: Why your news organization’s social media policy may be unlawful.

Earlier: NLRB says Reuters violated reporter’s right to discuss working conditions in a tweet | NPR’s social media policy gets it right

Related: Sinclair Broadcasting policy says the company owns the social media accounts of its on-air talent (Romenesko) | A database of corporate social media policies | California’s new privacy laws stop employers from social snooping (ReadWrite)

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  • Kelly Fincham

    I think the Labor Relations ruling on social media is a different animal to news org policies, which are more about journalism ethics…

  • Mike Johansson

    Before everyone starts ranting on social media about their bosses they might want to consider how this could yet become case law. For example, there’ s likely a good legal challenge to idea of social media being “like an office water cooler.” A water cooler doesn’t have a potential audience in the millions. A judge might find, for example, that social media is more like a crowded village square and that shouting diatribes against your employer there may be grounds for dismissal.