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Right to Free Speech vs. Right To Work

Posted by susabelle at 7:14 PM on February 7, 2011

The Federal Labor Relations Board has settled a lawsuit brought against a Connecticut ambulance company that disciplined an employee for criticizing a boss on Facebook.  The ambulance company had policies in place that included employees not being allowed to talk to others or coworkers about work, coworkers, and working conditions.  This was a pretty blatant suppression of freedom of speech rights.  And while it may not always be wise to dis the boss on your facebook page, it is a right of free speech to do so.

I find it unfortunate that some of my money (the government) had to be spent to reiterate to companies that employer rights do not trump employee rights when it comes to free speech, amongst other things.

Venting to friends and coworkers about unreasonable working conditions, the attitude of a boss, or pay rates is pretty normal.  Some of us do it in writing (emails to family/friends, chat messages set to family/friends, or facebook wall/status posts) and some of us do it in person (venting to a spouse over dinner or a friend over lunch).  Whichever way we do it, it is our right as Americans to have that freedom of speech.

Does this mean we shouldn’t be careful what we post on facebook?  Absolutely not; this forum should still be carefully considered when choosing where to post your words.  I choose not to have work-related “friends” on my facebook friends list.  This is for self-preservation at the least.  There are just some things that shouldn’t hit the rumor mill, especially in writing.  And it’s so easy to repost what someone says.  I don’t want to find myself backed into a corner by something I said within “earshot” of a coworker on facebook.

On the other hand, I do vent on facebook about work and other annoyances in my life.  It’s no holds barred when it comes to my life on facebook.  I complain about my husband, work, what I paid for Super Bowl snacks at the grocery store, car repairs, the weather, you name it.  I also post about things that make me happy: when my kids are successful, when I get a job interview, when surgery goes well, when my cat does something funny/stupid, etc.  Facebook in many ways is no different than talking to a girlfriend over lunch for me.  We share all kinds of things.

My company can’t come on my lunch date at a local cafe and tell me to stop talking about work, coworkers, bosses, or problems with a friend or spouse.  They can’t discipline me for doing the same on facebook.  It’s the law, and the NLRB has clarified their position on the matter.  Too bad we needed a lawsuit to make the point.

2 Comments

  1. From Andrew at 1:20 am on February 8, 2011

    This case is too complex to be simply dismissed as “freedom of speech” v. employer rights. Here are a couple of things to consider…

    i) The comments made by the worker verge on libellous, whether it was couched in professional jargon or not.

    ii) Legislation around sexual, political and religious discrimination increasingly focus on the offense caused, not the offense intended.

    iii) Chatting to coworkers, friends and relatives in private round the water cooler is no way like posting comments on Facebook. For starters, the comment lasts forever and for seconds, I don’t think Facebook could be considered a private place for most people. How few “friends” do you have to have for it to be private? 5? 2?

    I think the NRLB was right to discipline the worker for the comments about the supervisor but was wrong to include the comments about pay and conditions. Unfortunately it seems that both got bundles into the same issue.

  2. From Andrew at 10:56 am on February 8, 2011

    Purely by coincidence…
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-12393893

    Andrew