A Georgia school bus driver claims he was fired for speaking on behalf of hungry school children. The Times-Georgian reports on the bus driver, Johnny Cook, who worked for the Haralson County School System, when he complained about the school system’s school lunch policy on his personal Facebook page. Cook claimed a child told him he was denied lunch because he did not have money to pay for it. His Facebook post went viral. The school system asked Cook to remove his post, but he refused. This led to Cook’s termination two days later, on the grounds that he violated the school system’s social media policy.
The school system’s social media policy has a rule against employees posting negative comments about their employer. Additionally, the school system claims the school lunch incident in Cook’s post never actually occurred and that his description was false. The school system also claims the termination was not a violation of Cook’s free speech rights, since false information that harms the school system is not protected.
Employment and Free Speech
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit on Cook’s behalf, claiming his First Amendment rights were violated when the school system fired him for refusing to take down his Facebook post. For the majority of employers, the First Amendment does not apply because the First Amendment only addresses government actions. Private employers are not government agents and may place reasonable restrictions or guidelines on employees’ communications about their employer. However in this case, the school system is a government entity. This brings the social media policy into question and could place limits on school system’s ability to restrict or retaliate against its employees’ communications outside of work.
Social Media and Employment
It is interesting that the school system wanted Cook to remove the post even though it had already gone viral. Once a post is sent, regardless of the social media platform, removing the post will likely have less impact than a retraction or a rebuttal post. Furthermore, making demands for employees to remove posts from their personal social media accounts, unless the post is actually illegal, could create additional legal concerns for an employer.
Washington employers can potentially terminate an employee for content on the employee’s personal social media site. But, except in specific situations, Washington employers are prohibited from requesting employees’ social media passwords, as well as requesting employees to accept employers on their social networks or making employees reveal content from their social media. Fortunately, strong social media policies for employee use of company social media and personal comments about the employer online can help employers avoid situations like Cook’s.
Policies allow employers to layout their expectations and alert employees of potential consequences of their actions online, like termination. The policies can also direct employees to the proper person for addressing their concerns or providing comments for the employer. Solid company policies can help prevent negative situations like the one in Georgia and can reduce confusion on the legality of an employee’s termination.
If you believe you were wrongfully terminated or have questions about your company’s social media policies, an experienced Washington employment law attorney can help.