Is Social Media Eroding Our Speech Rights?

From a young age, we have been taught to think before we speak. It’s the moral of a story written in Aesop’s Fables, a collection of tales parents tell their children. The lesson seems simple: if you don’t think before you speak, you may regret what you say. But, even this easy lesson is hard to teach. And now, not only do we need to remember to think before we speak, we need to remember to think before we tweet, or we can suffer serious consequences.

Last fall, Home Depot came under fire for a tweet sent out on the company’s official twitter account. The tweet was part of a college game day promotion on ESPN. The picture was of two African-American drummers with a person in a gorilla mask sitting in the middle. The tweet read, “Which drummer is not like the others?”

Mistake Erodes Our RightsHome Depot immediately removed the tweet, apologized for it and fired the employee and outside agency responsible.

In this case, there is no question whether or not Home Depot had a right to fire the person who sent the tweet. It was posted on the company’s account and was considered racist. The employee obviously did not think before tweeting—and as a result, the person was out of job. That is a big price to pay for a careless 140 characters.

This isn’t the first time a company has fired someone for posting inappropriate content on social media. But unlike the Home Depot incident, the firing isn’t always justified. Mashable put together a list of 11 people who lost their jobs over social media faux pas. It included a teacher who was asked to resign after she posted pictures of herself drinking on vacation on her personal Facebook page and a 22-year-old tweeting negative comments about a new job offer.

What happened to our so-called freedom of speech in those cases? Americans used to have a right to communicate their opinions or beliefs and were protected by the First Amendment from legal repercussions. So, the question we need to ask is: Does a company have a right to fire someone because of something they say on their personal Facebook page or twitter account?

I believe the answer is no. While I do think people need to be respectful, I also think they have a right to voice their opinions and beliefs, even if their employers don’t like them. They should be allowed to do so without worrying about their jobs. It is very nice that the First Amendment protects us against the government punishing us for speech it doesn’t like. But what good does that do if your employer can survey anything you post anywhere and fire you for posts the employer doesn’t like. That would have a real chilling effect on speech.

It’s clear not all organizations agree with me. But right now, fairly or unfairly, we need to think before we tweet.

Aliza Friedlander, Graduate Student
Master of Arts in Emerging Media
Loyola University Maryland
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