Another status update on Facebook, another termination from work… Many employees’ Facebook comments have landed them in trouble, leaving them jobless within days. Just recently, a tenured New Jersey schoolteacher named Jennifer O’Brien was fired after she vocalized the following opinions about her students on her private Facebook page (from opinion PDF):

I’m not a teacher – I’m a warden for future criminals!

They had a scared straight program in school – why couldn’t [I] bring [first] graders.

Predictably, students’ parents and the principal found her comments offensive, and instantly challenged her continued role as an educator.

In response to being charged with “conduct unbecoming a teacher,” O’Brien argued that her expression should be protected by the First Amendment’s right to free speech. However, free speech only goes so far in the work environment, as defined by the Pickering Test:

The Courts have adopted the Pickering Test to determine whether an employee’s comment should be granted First Amendment asylum. Under this test, a public employee has a “protected right under the First Amendment to comment on “matters of public concern,” no matter what the employer thinks.” If the comments aren’t considered a “matter of public concern,” however, First Amendment protection is not afforded.

The Court in the O’Brien case confirmed the decision to terminate her employment since her speech did not constitute a matter of public concern. They further stated that “even assuming the speech was on a matter of “public concern,”” “the district’s interest in the efficient operation of its schools outweighed O’Brien’s right to express those comments.”

Although the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has taken a stance against many employee firings of this type, cases like O’Brien still remind us of the delicate boundaries in workforce etiquette.

The bottom line: be cognizant of what you say online. Ironically, people feel most comfortable revealing their most intimate thoughts in a forum where they should in fact tread most carefully. Not only do comments become hard, written proof the moment you type them, they also spread like wild fire. Remember: the web, as the name suggests, catches everything and may tangle you in an unpleasant situation. Type carefully !

Karina Saranovic