Free Speech Without Consequences? Not on Social Media
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: person has an opinion. Person posts opinion on Facebook in a not-so-eloquent way. Person loses job.
An all-too-familiar story, especially in the social media age, right? I mean, if I had a nickel for every story I read like that … well, I’d have a lot of nickels.
My friend and San Diego-based Vox colleague Rachel sent me a link to a story that, in part, would have garnered me another nickel. Actually, forget the nickel. I needed a C-note to keep up with this one.
Here’s the condensed version: Coriann, a young single mom in Washington state who works as a substitute paraeducator (which I’m interpreting to mean teacher aide) posts a comment to the public Facebook page “I hate teen moms,” in an attempt to explain that being responsible at a young age while having sex can help prevent unwanted pregnancies. Her comments:
“TO ALL THE TEEN MOMS BITCHING ON THIS PAGE!!!!”
“First off in this day an (sic) age there should be no such thing as an unplanned pregnancy!!! there is condoms, birth control, and the plan B so if you females aren’t utilizing that than you are all dumb as
Later she added, “I
-—- all through high school and because i was ‘RESPONSIBLE’ I never got knocked up!!!”
Enter Jenn, a nurse from San Diego who is a mother herself and who also visited the “I hate teen moms” page and discovered the aforementioned comments. Jenn’s responses?
“My only hope for mankind is that you remain infertile,”
“Why don’t you throw yourself off of a cliff?”
There was probably more to the exchange, although that’s not clear from the article, and I’d be willing to bet one of my nickels that at some point, someone said, “I know you are, but what am I?” But it didn’t stop there. Jenn goes to Coriann’s Facebook page, finds out where she lives and that she works for the school there, and reports her to the school. Next thing Coriann knows, she’s out of a job.
There’s more to this story, and I’d encourage you to read it, as well as the follow-up article in which Jenn (the nurse) defends her actions. It’s got drama. It’s a bit bizarre. You can’t make this stuff up.
But in the midst of this online food fight is a cautionary tale for social media users and some good communication lessons in general.
1. It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it. Coriann (the single mom) had good intentions I’m sure, as far as wanting to stress responsibility in having teen sex. But calling those you’re trying to have a conversation with “dumb as #$&*” is probably not the best way to go about it. There’s a better way to get the point across without insulting those to whom you’ are trying to convey the point.
And while we’re on the subject, Nurse Jenn doesn’t get off free and clear here. A grown adult telling someone to throw himself or herself off a cliff doesn’t exactly allow one to maintain the moral high ground, in my opinion.
2. You say it on Facebook, you’ve said it in public. This isn’t an issue of “I said it on my personal page where I’ve got certain privacy settings.” Coriann made her comment on a public page. A page that the whole world can see. In other words, it’s the Facebook equivalent of getting up in person in a town hall meeting and saying the same thing. Everyone heard what you said. If you post to a public online forum, everyone sees it. So ask yourself before posting something: “would I get up in front of a live audience and say what I’m about to post?” If the answer is “no,” then you may want to rethink things. If you’re not sure about a page’s privacy settings, assume it’s public.
3. “Free speech” doesn’t mean freedom from consequence. I confess this is a pet peeve of mine, because invariably, in these situations, someone always tries to play the “free speech” card. I’ll save the civics lesson and assure you that no one’s freedom of speech is being infringed. You’re pretty much free to say whatever you want. But there are consequences. If I walk up to the guy in the gym bench-pressing six tons and call him a “sissy,” I expect there are consequences (none of which work out well for me). Sure, I can talk smack about my employer or a client. I’m free to do that. Just as my employer or client is free to terminate my employment as a result. So, yes, you can say whatever you want in a public forum, as long as you’re prepared for the blowback. Just because you can do something, doesn’t always mean you should.
4. Does my employer have a social media policy? What prompted Nurse Jenn to report Coriann’s comments to the school where she worked was the fact that Coriann was, in Jenn’s estimation, a teacher (and thus, held to a higher standard). Rather than quibble about whether a “substitute paraeducator” (as Coriann is referred to by her employer) is the same as a teacher, the larger question is whether the school district in which she worked had a policy for their employees regarding social media that explained the expectations for employees’ conduct on social media sites.
It’s easy to think of social media sites as our happy place, where we can run foot loose and fancy-free. But it’s also a place where our professional and personal personas run the risk of intersecting, where a comment made in one’s personal capacity potentially damages their professional life.
In this case, Jenn saw Coriann as a teacher and found her comments inappropriate as those coming from a teacher. The school district’s rationale for her termination was essentially a variation of “conduct unbecoming.” But I wonder if Coriann saw herself as a teacher and a representative of the school district? I also wonder if there was a social media policy that emphasized that as well.
The lesson here is, if you are an employee, you are, by extension, a representative of your company or organization. Anything you post in your personal social media realm (especially in the public realm) runs the risk of being attributed to your professional life. Facebook doesn’t care whether you’re off the clock or not. Refer to point two.
If you’re an employer, do you have a social media policy for your employees? If you don’t, you should. (Gini Dietrich offers some good pointers on what should be in a social media policy in a recent blog post). And if you do, ensure your employees understand it. I mean, really, really understand it. (Oh, and employees…make sure you understand the policy too. I mean, really, really understand it).
Bottom line: post wisely. And keep your head about you.
Dave Nagle never met a cup of coffee he didn’t like and downs many a cup as Vox Optima’s premier speechwriter and communications expert. With more than more than 20 years of DoD and Navy public affairs and journalism experience, Dave’s definitely a “been there, done that” guy – reporter, photographer, editor – broadcaster, PR dude. Be sure to connect with Dave by following him on Twitter, on LinkedIn or by emailing him.
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