A Louisville Metro corrections officer has been suspended for posting a racist meme on his Facebook account. His commentary, which was simply, “Ha… Truth.” May, in fact, cost him his job. It has certainly stirred up quite a bit of emotion and reaction from the community here. Fortunately, city officials have acted quickly to suspend him and trumpet that this is unacceptable in a city that wishes to promote understanding and compassion.
Inevitably, after the dust settles there will be some who say, “Well, it was just a joke. Yeah, it was insensitive, but we all need to relax.” They’re wrong and part of the problem, yes. But the incident does bring in mind the topic of social media policies for businesses. What are you, the employee, allowed to post and not post?
Many people take on the attitude that as long as they don’t identify themselves as working for the company, they can say what they want on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. This is short-sighted thinking in two areas. First, it takes about 45 seconds for a savvy person to connect you to your employer online. I’ve been hard pressed to find an example of someone I couldn’t almost immediately verify worked at a certain company. Whether you are allowed to put your employer on your profile or not, there’s almost always some link back to make that connection. You are an extension of your employer online whether you like it or not. Thus, you are certainly subject to their policies.
The second area that most misunderstand when it comes to voicing their opinions on social media is the issue of freedom of speech. “I have freedom of speech!” is a common rallying cry when a company wants to crack down on an employee’s social media posts. The problem is, while freedom of speech is a tenet of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, it does not mean anyone can say anything anywhere.
The First Amendment guarantees that “prohibits the making of any law” that abridges the freedom of speech. Period. That’s it. It does not say that everyone can say what they want, when they want, in whatever context they want.
What that means is you do have the freedom to say whatever you want to say. We can make no law to prohibit that. But you are still accountable for what you say and when that speech violates other laws, rules or policies, you can be held responsible for them.
You can scream “fire” in a crowded theatre. But you may also then be charged with inciting a riot, disturbing the peace or any of the other number of safety violations that arise after. You can say that your neighbor embezzled money from his company, but if he can prove he didn’t, you can be held accountable for slander (or libel if you publish it) and penalized as such.
You can post a racist meme on social media. But if your employer has a policy against bringing discredit to the company and they feel it does, you can be reprimanded, or fired, for such an action.
Freedom of speech isn’t an open door to saying what you want to say. It’s simply a statement that the government can’t stop you from talking. You are still accountable for what you say, however, and that is lost on most people.
Note: I have been invited to discuss the topic on WHAS 11 News at 4 p.m. today, July 14. Watch online at www.whas11.com.