Saturday, November 20, 2010

Social Media Policy Lawsuits, Part 1 of 2

Social media iconsBack when I first started pitching the idea of developing a social media policy for an organization, it was really two-fold. The first part was the key part to me — outline a process and rules for your organization to communicate using social media. Having a process for responding to questions, complaints, trolls, etc. from customers directly engaging an organization or from comments found out in the wild of the web is just good business practice.

The second part was, in my opinion, a little less important. Creating a policy for how employees use social media at work and how they discuss work seemed pretty straightforward and already covered by existing confidentiality and defamation policies. Sadly, in a litigious society such as ours, it's never that simple and legal counsel is motivated to create iron-clad legalize tomes of rules.

The end result is that some employees may feel that their rights are being infringed. Today I'll cover a case with a school board in Florida.

Teachers vs. the School Board

In August, the Santa Rosa County School Board posted its revised E-Mail, Internet, and Social Media Acceptable Use and Risk Policy. Parts of the policy make perfect sense, such as protecting non-public student information by requiring parents to sign-off before any of that information will be transmitted via the notoriously insecure method of email.

The social media portion of the document, titled Risks Associated with the Use of Social Media literally discusses the risks of social media and has a sign-off at the end stating that the reader acknowledges those risks. There are cases where specific and non-specific statements are made, such as this one about befriending students and posting information about students:

The Santa Rosa County School Board does not support or recommend any staff member “Friend”-ing a student or parent on a social network. Do not post student pictures, names, or work on school or personal sites unless specific permission to do so has been obtained from parents and site administration. ADDITIONALLY, ANY INFORMATION RELAYED TO STUDENTS VIA ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATIONS MUST BE ETHICALLY APPROPRIATE AND PREFERABLY SCHOOL-RELATED (I.E., HAVE LIMITED ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATION WITH STUDENTS)

The teachers union, however, takes issue with the policy overall. A third grade teacher at the school worked with the union to threaten a lawsuit, providing the following statements:

My main concern is an employer has asked an employee to sign a document that is so lengthy, it required a table of contents. [...] It stated by signing the nine-page document, you agreed to everything in there and were not allowed to edit it, in part or in total. [...] When you sign the form, it says the district has the right to put your name, picture and employment on the Internet, and you have no discretion on how it is used.

While I think she has it completely wrong (the policy is geared toward protecting student data), I am not a lawyer (IANAL™) and not every employee is going to read this kind of document carefully, with its extensive legal references (for self education), and not feel as if a signature is somehow terminally binding on something that may not be understood.

Teachers in Manatee County and Bradenton County, both also in Florida, have also filed lawsuits with similar claims. The flip side, however, is that teachers without a social media policy giving them direction on appropriate behavior may not know where to draw the line. While a policy doesn't prevent poor behavior, it sets parameters and expectations, and protects schools when teachers get out of line.

Just last month New York Post reported on three teachers that were fired for inappropriate interaction with students on Facebook. In the article, the Post reported that the Department of Education has no social media policy in place. The absence of a policy governing behavior with students can lead to lawsuits from parents just as easily as lawsuits from unions for having a policy.

Tomorrow I'll cover another example lawsuit and a new policy from a professional organization.

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