As reported by CNN.com last week, a Hampton, Virginia deputy was fired after clicking the ‘Like’ button on the page of his sheriff’s opponent in a 2009 election. Daniel Ray Carter Jr. wasn’t only in his termination. Five others were also let go for supporting Sherriff B.J. Roberts’s opponent, Jim Adams. As expected, Carter sued, claiming the Facebook status should be protected under free speech. A U.S. District Court judge, Raymond A. Jackson, didn’t agree, ruling that the Facebook status isn’t protected because free speech only protects an individual when they verbally saying something. Unsurprisingly, Carter is appealing.
This case is certainly not shocking considering that we’ve already read accounts of employers requiring employees to hand over social media passwords on terminating employees for online comments. (Quick side story: a close friend of mine applying for a job in the department of corrections in California deleted his Facebook account so it couldn’t be used against him in the application process. The move backfired as interviewers badgered him for not having a Facebook account, thinking that he was obviously hiding something).
The Hampton, Virginia case highlights how current laws are still behind the times. My prediction is that the ruling will be overturned… eventually. Until that time, all employees can learn from this virtual teachable moment. As always, be very careful of what you say or do online. Don’t assume that your employer can’t access your expressed views online. Even worse, don’t assume that they are not actively monitoring it. We are all watching the line between personal and professional life quickly vanish. Years from now, I suspect that laws will change and online activity will become protected speech. In the meantime, keep yourself safe and don’t provide employers ammunition that can be used against you.