An Employer's Response to a Social Media Nightmare

 

 Earlier this year, a local teacher was suspended after her school learned about nasty comments on her personal blog concerning her students. And that story became national news. More on the history here, here, and here.

Now, word has it that the school is considering a social-media policy. Well, it's about time! What's in the policy and does it go too far? Find out after the jump.

Social-media policy? We don't need no stinkin' policy! Then again...

According to this report from Christina Kristofic of The Intelligencer, the draft social media policy prohibits district staff from engaging in 21 different "improper electronic communications."

Among the forbidden activities are calling students on personal cell phones, sending text messages to students, emailing students or parents from a personal email account, "friending" students on Facebook and other social networks, shopping on-line from a school computer, posting anything on-line that would be "disruptive to the educational process" and using a district computer to blog for anything other than educational purposes. (my emphasis)

I get the rules involving contact between teachers and students. Face-to-face, telephone, and school email accounts should suffice as lines of communication. (You can read more on my thoughts about social-media communications between students and teachers here). The shopping online from a school computer I understand too, insofar as teachers are doing it on "school"-time versus on  "break"-time. But the last two points above, which I emphasized? Really? 

Is the school overreacting?

Fortunately for the school, it is not covered under the National Labor Relations Act. Therefore, the school can avoid the hammer that the National Labor Relations Board has been swinging recently at overly-broad social-media policies (e.g., here). However, the school is covered under Pennsylvania's Act 195, which, like the NLRA, affords employees the right to organize (or not to organize) and to discuss terms and conditions of employment (i.e., engage in "concerted activity"). Therefore, any employer activity that chills employee rights under Act 195, particularly the right to engage in concerted activity, could be viewed as unlawful. 

Then, also consider that, unlike private-sector employees, those who work in the public sector can exercise certain free-speech rights without fear of discipline from their employer. Would a teacher who addressed school-related matters of public concern online be "disruptive to the educational process"? I wouldn't want to test that in court if I were the school.

But, let's put aside the law for a second. Does it make sense to have such an overly broad social-media policy, when something more narrowly-tailored would do the trick? There are times to bring a gun to a knife fight. (Remember The Untouchables? Don't click this link unless you're ok with a surly Sean Connery making two ethnic slurs as he tries to mow down an uninvited Italian house guest). Drafting handbook policies isn't one of them.

And, while I get that some employers want to limit employee use of their computer infrastructure to work-related activities, in practice there can be big-time problems with monitoring and enforcement. Moreover, what's the harm of a teacher who, on a lunch break, updates a personal blog? As long as she's not "pulling a Natalie Munroe" or damaging the computer network, who cares?

But enough talk from me. What do you think? Sound off in the comments below.

This article was originally published on  Eric B. Meyer's  blog, The Employer Handbook.

 

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