The Fallacy of Freedom of Speech and Social Media

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The Fallacy of Freedom of Speech and Social Media

Hardly a week goes by when we don’t hear the story of an employee being fired for something that they’ve posted online to social media channels such as Twitter (Justine Sacco) or YouTube (Logan Paul) or Snapchat (Dani Mathers) and it goes on.

Celebrities aren’t immune either. The American Broadcasting Company (ABC) fired Roseanne Barr for a racist tweet directed toward Valeria Jarrett. Of course it was only a matter of time before the pile on from all sides and the declaration that “freedom of speech was dead”…

The same sequence of events occurs after these situations come to light and it doesn’t matter the if it happens in a small city in Alberta or Hollywood.

Step 1: Individual says something offline, gets caught and it gets posted online OR the individual posts something online, it gets picked up and goes ‘viral’

Step 2: The individual is linked back to their employer.

Step 3: The masses pressure and demand action from said employer (e.g.: “fire this employee or we’ll never do business with you again!”)

Step 4: Employer usually has no plan, so in knee-jerk reaction they terminate employment and make an announcement to calm the masses.

Step 5: Now a pocket of people are outraged because they believe that Freedom of Speech is now dead because an employer fired an employee for something they said.

Step 6: And it repeats week-over-week.

Rosanne implied that the action of being fired for a tweet was censorship.  The reality is that if an individual impacts the ability of company to do business (whether that means the loss of revenue or the refusal of other employees willing to work with said individual) they have just cause to terminate employment. This may not seem fair because most people are under the impression that they get to say or do whatever they want, whenever they want; online or offline; on-the-clock 0r off-the-clock, but this is not how it works. Roseanne took a bit of a hiatus, however, this week a podcast dropped where she talked about the incident and the impact. That’s the important thing to keep in mind is that even long after you’ve said your piece, shared it online, faced the consequences – the impact lives on. Unfortunately, whether she meant the tweet the way it was understood is irrelevant and it could impact future job opportunities for her.

Here are a few important reminders about Freedom of Speech:

(1) Yes. It is protected under the Constitution (USA) and the Charter of Rights (Canada) however, it means that individuals are protected from the government and treated equally under the law.

(2) No. It is not absolute. That means that there are limits, as in, if you go off on a racist rant – you are not protected. The Charter puts limits on Freedom of Speech such as speech that violates the criminal code, human rights etc.

(3) No. It doesn’t come without consequences. Sure, you can say what you want but that doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences. If you share your opinions freely, you could lose clients, customers, friends etc. and you may find yourself at the centre news stories that go coast-to-coast.

(4) Yes. You can be disciplined for conduct that occurs off-the-clock. The test most frequently used here in Canada to determine whether conduct that happens off-the-clock warrants discipline or termination is called the Millhaven Test. 

How can employees and employers protect themselves from social media controversy and backlash? 

The easiest way to avoid controversy is to obviously refrain from sharing your opinions publicly. But since this is definitely not the direction we want to move in (we need healthy, respectful and open discussions about tough topics.) We need a more practical solution. This means that we must understand our legal rights as employees and employers, as well as expectations. The easiest and most efficient way to do this is through the creation of effective social media guidelines and social media training. A social media guideline can act as the playbook for employee activity online, outlining both employer and employee expectations. With proactive clear and consistent communications, you can set everyone up for success online rather than waiting for your organization to be at the centre of a social media storm.


Related Blogs:
How to write a social media guideline that your employees will understand
Social Media Training For Employees
Human Resources: addressing negative social media posts online
How To Use Social Media During Real Crisis Situations
Social Media, Freedom of Speech and Employment

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Kat Macaulay, BA ADdPR BnC
Kat Macaulay, BA ADdPR BnC
Kat Macaulay is a Marketing Strategist, Writer + Speaker known for her no-nonsense approach to pretty much everything. Using data insights, she helps organizations market more effectively to get results that matter. She's also a high-scoring instructor at Mount Royal University, where she teaches Social Media Analytics and Google Analytics + Marketing Measurement. She holds certifications from Google, as well as Facebook and is currently working toward a specialization in Marketing Analytics and a certificate in Data Science from IBM. When she’s not busy juggling kids, volunteering + work, she’s busy planning her retirement to Cape Breton.