This page considers dismissal of employees and suspension
of students on the basis of information on social networks.
It covers -
A broader discussion of workplace censorship features
In February 2008 the UK Independent claimed that
Los Angeles to Lowestoft, thousands of social network
site users have lost their jobs – or failed to
clinch new ones – because of their pages' contents.
Police, colleges and schools are monitoring MySpace
and Facebook pages for what they deem to be "inappropriate"
content. Online security holes and users' naivety are
combining to cause privacy breaches and identity thefts.
And what all this, and more, adds up to is this: online
social networking can seriously damage your life.
extent to which people have lost jobs (or lost opportunities
for jobs), have been suspended from school or otherwise
suffered when an institution, employer, vetting
service or other entity has examined SSN content is unclear.
It reflects variation in institutional practice and in
workplace or other law, with dismissals in some US states
for example involving firings under 'at will' regimes
that provides employees with substantially less protection
than that found in Australia.
There have been no comprehensive studies. Much coverage
in the mainstream media is alarmist and anecdotal, often
driven by thin media releases from recruitment
services or from network security vendors.
It is clear, however, that some individuals have been
disadvantaged because they chose to provide information
on Facebook, MySpace, Bebo or another SNS.
Some of those people are alerted that the information
has resulted in detriment (eg they are being fired or
suspended because they engaged in particular behaviour
on the network, made a statement or revealed that they
had engaged in stigmatised offline behaviour).
Other people may however have been silently 'sorted' (for
example tacitly denied a job or tagged as someone deserving
of closer ongoing observation) on the basis of SSN content
encountered by another entity which chose not to bring
concerns to the attention of the person.
Being 'busted' for what is expressed in a social network
service is not unprecedented, contrary to hyperbole from
some SNS zealots whose enthusiasm is matched by their
ignorance or disregard of offline law and business practice.
People have for a long time been fired from jobs or encouraged
to resign from public positions after 'unfortunate' utterances
were published by newspapers or relayed by broadcasters.
Students and academics have similarly been punished for
statements and activity offline.
Arguably what makes SNS different are expectations that
electronic fora are somehow privileged, that the 'wrong'
people (such as employers or school administrators) simply
will not encounter problematical SNS content or that participants
can engage in bullying
or stalking with impunity.
Recent years have seen interest in blog-related dismissals,
discussed in more detail elsewhere
on this site. What of people losing their jobs (or being
disciplined) for what appears in social network spaces?
As noted above, there has been no comprehensive study
of how many people have been fired (or alleged to have
been fired or not employed) on the basis of behaviour
in SNS - such as harassment of a colleague or criticism
of the employer - or what a SNS profile/message reveals
about them (eg that they were gay, were union activists,
were a party animal). Most media coverage has been resolutely
Examples include -
Jeff Crouse, a teacher at a Las Vegas Catholic school
fired after he declared himself gay on his MySpace page.
The Las Vegas Diocese indicated that he was "terminated,
per his contract" for "maintaining, by word
or action, a position contrary to the ordinary teaching
of the Catholic Church"
Atlantic's sacking 13 flight attendants in October 2008
after their Facebook entries criticised the airline's
safety standards, claimed that its fleet was infested
by cockroaches and described its passengers as "chavs"
the Florida sheriff's deputy fired after his MySpace
page revealed his heavy drinking and fascination with
Beech, fired by UK retailer Argos in Wokingham for saying
on Facebook that working at the firm was "shit".
Argos indicated that Beech was busted for "placing
inappropriate entries on Facebook"; he said "I'm
stunned they fired me for this. I had a really bad day
and was feeling overworked and under-paid. My mistake
was to sound off on Facebook."
of Ottawa grocery chain Farm Boy Inc fired for their
"negative comments" on Facebook
Northampton police officers investigated over Facebook
comments in support of a colleague who accidentally
ran over a fleeing burglar. Det Supt Charles Moffat
commented in 2007 that investigation was "because
it's clearly inappropriate to be discussing ongoing
investigations in an open forum that is not secure.
... staff should exercise some caution in the use of
these sites which are not secure and it could lead to
the identification and danger of themselves their colleagues
and their families."
Anglo Irish Bank intern Kevin Colvin, sprung in 2007
when he told his employer that he had a family emergency
but whose Facebook profile featured pictures of him
in drag enjoying a Halloween party
aide Philip Clarke suspended from his job in 2007 after
his Facebook profile featured racist comments and photos
of him applying burnt cork to another aide.
2008 Inspector Chris Dreyfus, head of royalty and government
protection for the British Transport Police, was denied
promotion to chief inspector because he posted "personal
information about his gay lifestyle" on Facebook.
Dreyfus had been offered a position as chief inspector
with Bedfordshire Police; that force subsequently withdrew
the offer after a vetting
check. He had received a warning from his seniors over
his Facebook profile. Dreyfus noted that there was "nothing
sexually explicit" and commented that "As long
as I do not do anything to disgrace the force then what
I do privately is acceptable".
Observers have unsurprisingly noted that other police
executives have not been punished for having a 'straight
lifestyle'. Dreyfus remains responsible for guarding the
Queen, the royal family and government figures when they
are on the rail network.
SNS content has also been exploited by law enforcement
Jacob Hansen's Facebook profile for example was examined
in 2007 after he was charged with motor vehicle homicide.
That search resulted in prosecution for an unrelated crime:
misdemeanor possession of stolen property. Photos on the
profile featured numerous stolen street and warning signs
(some captioned 'I steal signs when I'm drunk'), with
Omaha City Prosecutor Marty Conboy commenting "it
certainly makes police work a lot easier when you can
find evidence posted by the suspect".
In 2008 Moroccan computer engineer Fouad Mourtada was
sentenced to three years imprisonment for setting up a
spoof Facebook profile in the name of Prince Moulay Rachid,
younger brother of King Mohammed VI. Mourtada was reportedly
beaten into unconsciousness by Moroccan police, with the
court denouncing him for "villainous practices"
akin to lèse majesté.
He explained that the profile
on line a few days before somebody closed it. There
are so many profiles of celebrities on Facebook. I never
thought that by creating a profile of his highness
prince Moulay Rachid I am harming him in any way. I,
as a matter of fact, did not send any message from that
account to anyone. It was just a joke, a gag.
There has been no comprehensive study regarding monitoring
by educational institutions of SNS content or blogs created
In the US there has been debate about the appropriateness
of monitoring per se, of sanctions against content
created outside the insitution (eg posted from a personal
machine rather than from a school network), and whether
should enjoy special protection.
In Australia and elsewhere there has also been disagreement
about 'gripe' or 'score'
sites that encourage students to 'rate your teacher',
particularly on an anonymous basis. Some of that online
polling has been characterised as cyberbullying.
Incidents in the US include -
in 2005 of a student from Fisher College for Facebook
postings about a campus police officer that were deemed
to violate the school's code of conduct
imposed on four students at Northern Kentucky University
in 2005 after they posted pictures of a drinking party
on Facebook, demonstrating that they had violated NKU's
'dry campus policy'.
of a student from Arkansas's John Brown University in
2007 after administrators discovered Facebook pictures
of him dressed in drag, a violation of the school's
'Christian Conduct' code
of 16 year old Bryan Lopez from school in Colorado during
2006 for "a satirical comment on the poor physical
condition of the school, the behavior and demographics
of students and staff, lack of resources and the perceived
racial biases of teachers and administrators".
The comment was posted from home to his MySpace page.
Suspension reflected school policy prohibiting "off-campus
conduct" that is "detrimental to the welfare
or safety of other students or district employees."
of two Oak Park (Illinois) eighth graders after school
administrators saw their MySpace postings featuring
"foul language, a digitally altered photo of George
Bush sticking up his middle finger ... and disparaging
references" to another school in the area. The
administrators threatened to cancel the school's graduation
ceremonies unless all students deleted their MySpace
suspension of six students at Beaverton (Oregon) in
2006, from Southridge High School over "threatening
language" posted off-campus on MySpace, including
"an online forum attacking Goths". Suspension
reflected the school's "harassment and disruptive
behavior policy, covering action that disrupts learning".
should be noted that suspensions for 'off-campus' expression
in the US are frequently contested and that particular
institutions have reached out of court settlements. Examples
are O'Brien v. Westlake City Schools Board of Education,
Dwyer v. Oceanport School District, Beussink v. Woodland
R-IV School District, Flaherty v. Keystone Oaks Sch. District.)
Points of entry to the US legal literature include 'Unsolicited
Commercial E-Mail, Privacy Concerns Related to Social
Network Services, Online protection of Children and Cyberbullying'
by Usha Munukutla-Parker in 2 I/S: A Journal of Law
and Policy for the Information Society (2006) 627-650;
'Keep Out of Myspace!: Protecting Students From Unconstitutional
Suspensions and Expulsions' by Christi Cassel in 49 William
& Mary Law Review (2007) 643-72; 'Six Clicks
Of Separation: The Legal Ramifications Of Employers Using
Social Networking Sites To Research Applicants' by Ian
Byrnside in 10 Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment
& Technology Law (2008) 445-473; and 'The Story
of Me: The Underprotection of Autobiographical Speech'
by Sonja West in 84 Washington University Law Review