Sometimes I feel like a broken record (though in today’s world, perhaps that should be updated to "corrupted music file").  For a while now, it’s been apparent to most of us that employees continue to do silly things with e-mail and their social networking pages. 

Add a recent case in Connecticut to the list of cases where individuals are fired for inappropriate conduct on MySpace or social networking page.  (For a post on the use of social networking sites for background screening, click here.)

In Spanierman v. Hughes, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 69569 (D. Conn. Sept. 16, 2008) (download here), a teacher at an Ansonia, Connecticut high school created a MySpace page, ostensibly "to communicate with students about homework, to learn more about the students so he could relate to them better, and to conduct casual, non-school related discussions."

A full description of the case can be found at MediaShift, a PBS production

One of Spanierman’s school colleagues became concerned about the page, which she said contained, among other things, pictures of naked men with "inappropriate comments" underneath them. She was also concerned about the nature of the personal conversations that the teacher was having with the students, and she convinced Spanierman to remove the page, which she considered "disruptive to students." Spanierman subsequently created a new MySpace page, however, that included similar content and similar personal communications with students. When the colleague learned of the new page, she reported it to the school administration, which placed Spanierman on administrative leave and ultimately declined to renew his teaching contract for the following year. After hearings that he attended with his union representative and later with his attorneys, he received a letter stating that he had "exercised poor judgment as a teacher."

While the discipline of a teacher for conduct outside the classroom raised a number of legal issues, the District Court squarely came down on the side of the school  and the 41-page decision is certainly not lacking in notable (if unusual) details, such as a "poem" and a title of "Mr. Spiderman" on the MySpace page. 

The court also found that the online exchanges "with students show a potentially unprofessional rapport with students, and the court can see how a school’s administration would disapprove of, and find disruptive, a teacher’s discussion with a student about “getting any” (presumably sex), or a threat made to a student (albeit a facetious one) about detention."

As an aside, however, footnote 13 of the decision is a must-read for its straight-face approach to online etiquette indicating that the court was taking "judicial" notice that spelling and grammar are not always followed online: 

The court has not altered the contents of this or any other exchange taken from the Plaintiff’s MySpace profile page. The court takes notice that spelling and grammatical rules are not always closely followed in such casual or informal online exchanges, and that oftentimes certain phrases are abbreviated or expressed in a form of shorthand (e.g., “LOL” can mean “laughing out loud,” and “LMAO” can mean “laughing my ass off”). Furthermore, such exchanges often contain so-called “emoticons,” which are symbols used to convey emotional content in written or message form (e.g., “:)” indicates “smile” or “happy,” and “:(” indicates “frown” or “sad”). 

Ultimately, the case reinforces the fact that online forums, blogs and social networking sites remain a viable way for employers to discipline.  For employees, the lesson is clear: be careful what you write. And for employers, while you should be mindful that employees may have some rights on their right to publish materials online, there is still a role to be played when that conduct interferes with work. 

(After posting, I discovered a helpful post from the Delaware Employment Law Blog discussing this case as well.)

  • Great post, I especially like your inclusion of footnote 13. An entertaining aside.
    While employees continue to do silly things in cyberspace, so to do divorce litigants even while their lives are under the microscope of their spouse and the court. Will people ever learn not to cross the line, even with decisions like these?