Monday, June 7, 2010

Social Media’s Unintended Consequences

Good or bad; the explosion of the use of social media for its velocity and reach comes with some unintended consequences.

The same velocity and reach that will get the word out for a charitable event, fundraiser for a sick friend or a missing person will also be used to send venom, rumors, allegations and lies.

Social media is both a blessing and a curse that has caused a great “freedom of speech” debate.

Our freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights. “Speech” has been broadened to mean “expression”, in that the freedom can be verbal or non-verbal.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech”.

As I understand it as applied to social media, Congress could not enact a law prohibiting the creation of a social website that falls within the intent of the First Amendment and does not promote any of the exceptions to the amendment which are: defamation, causing panic, fighting words, incitement to crime, sedition or obscenity.

I believe that website “Terms of Service” buttresses their user policies against the exceptions to free speech, so that they are somewhat indemnified from charges that might be brought against a user of their website who engage in any of the exceptions to the First Amendment.

So, in my mind, someone who is fired by their employer because of something that they posted on a website is NOT protected by the First Amendment, because Congress has no interests in the website beyond the website’s right to exist and as long as the website doesn’t promote any of the exceptions to the First Amendment.

When a website removes a user for making a personal attack on another; be it another member, non-member or organization, I don’t believe that they are violating the user’s freedom of speech. They are invoking the website’s “Terms of Service”.

In much the same way a private business has the right to refuse service to anyone, a website that is privately held can fashion very liberal or very strict guidelines for membership and for the use of the website.

That is not to say that there may be moral or ethical arguments, but moral/ethical considerations are not identified in the First Amendment.

In that regard, it raises philosophical issues with freedom of expression and it is my understanding that the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, in his book “On Liberty”, provides the more accepted test for government intervention of civil liberties that is known as the “harm principle”.

It states: “…the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant”.

It should be noted that, according to Professor Julie Van Camp, most of the “classic” exceptions to freedom of expression, as established by the U.S. Supreme Court, are consistent with Mill’s harm principle, with the exception of obscenity.

So, that same website user decides to use the website as a very public platform to disparage or embarrass their employer; the employer sees it and terminates the employee.

Did the employer violate the employee’s freedom of speech, according to the language in the First Amendment?

Some may like to think so, but if the employee was not suppressed from posting it on the website, thereby freely expressing their opinion on the website, then how was their freedom of speech suppressed, according to the First Amendment?

In my opinion, the opinion expressed by the employee might be somewhat unpleasant and even contain some fact, but the employer isn’t terminating the employee for saying it, but because it was said publicly and consequently, violated the company’s code of conduct. Most employees sign a statement when they are hired that says that they agree to follow all of the rules and that they will do nothing to bring embarrassment to their employer.

Many will remember the firefighter/paramedic that was fired over the YouTube video that was posted on Facebook (

His employer stated that he was terminated for: “You displayed poor judgment in producing a derogatory video depicting a member of this department with a physician which is implied to be at Colleton Medical Center…This video has created an embarrassing situation for this department, our public image and the cooperative relationship we enjoy with Colleton Medical Center. It reflects poorly on you and Colleton County”.

“Poor judgment” is not protected under the First Amendment.

But, this isn’t the only example of an employee being fired over a social website posting.
Here is just a sampling of examples of employees being fired over a social website posting:


And now, we have a story about an anonymous commenter who will be charged with defamation, once their identity is discovered. Let’s face it; it may no longer be “safe” to hide behind a user name and computer screen and violate someone else’s rights (

According to the news article, the Third District Appellate Court in Ottawa, IL ruled that The Times newspaper in Ottawa must turn over information that could identify a person who posted alleged defamatory comments on the newspaper’s website.

According to Appellate Justices Holdridge and McDade: “…type of anonymous speech are protected by the Constitution, but the Maxons showed grounds for defamation that took away the defendant’s Constitutional right to make anonymous web comments”.

They also went on to say in their ruling that: “the alleged defamatory comments were not presented as opinions, which would protect the commenter from a lawsuit, but as fact”.

Now; there were some who felt that the anonymous commenter should be protected.


While you ponder that question, we should also be thinking about our own posting “habits”.

We may want to get a better idea of what is stated as fact and what is stated as opinion.


The source for part of this article was “Freedom of Expression: The First Amendment” by Professor Julie Van Camp.

This article is protected by federal copyright laws under The Adventures of Jake and Vinnie© umbrella. It cannot be re-produced in any form without the expressed, written permission of the author, Art Goodrich a.k.a. ChiefReason.

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