Employee fired for MySpace page sues: Who wins?

For some reason, many employees are surprised when inappropriate content they put on the Web is read by their boss or someone in HR. A few even go as far as suing the company once they’re disciplined or fired because of it.

Jeffrey Spanierman was non-tenured high school teacher in Ansonia, Connecticut — until he was fired because of his MySpace page.

He said he created the page to communicate with students outside of school and build a better relationship with them. But parents and school officials weren’t too pleased when they saw what was on the site.

The profile, in which Spanierman called himself “Mr. Spiderman,” contained nude photos of men, foul language and inappropriate conversations with students (including one about whether a student was “getting any,” presumably referring to sex).

The school ordered him to take the profile down. He did, but then put an identical page up shortly after and was promptly fired.

Spanierman sued, claiming his right to free speech was violated. But the court ruled in the employer’s favor. The MySpace page was clearly inappropriate and raised doubts about his ability to do his job. Therefore, the school made the right choice when it fired him.

Can MySpace get someone fired?

Can employers terminate workers based on their online activities? It’s a complicated question and one that has yet to be fully tested in court.

Things get tricky with public employers, who are subject to First Amendment restrictions. Also, some states have laws against terminating workers for off-duty conduct.

But as this case shows, what makes it onto the Web can end up being job related. Other employees have been fired after bragging online about stealing or lying about skipping work. Some employers have let people go out of fear that a worker’s stupidity could damage the company’s reputation.

In those situations, employers shouldn’t expect any legal trouble.

What has your experience been? Have you or any of your managers come across an employee’s online profile? Ever fired anyone because of it? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Cite: Spanierman v. Hughes

5 Essential Steps for Choosing The Right HR Software

Choosing a BI vendor is all about finding the right fit. Our exclusive report will walk you through the process and help you select the perfect fit.Download Now

Comments

  1. We fired an employee because he was constantly updating and accessing his page at work. He also had inappropriate conversations with clients. I installed a tracker on the server and monitored his activity and was told not to access his page at work. He continued to do so and was terminated.

  2. This question may betray my HR neophyte status, but would a Code of Conduct, signed by the employee at hiring, have allowed the employer to terminate with legal impunity?

  3. This one has left me (almost) speechless. Sorry, Mr. Spanierman, but what a moron! Guess he never heard the observation that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. So glad the employer won this case and really hard to believe he sued in the first place. Would love to hear his defense of free speech on this. But, this same action might not have had the same result if the students had been adults. I would hope the school would still discipline him in that case. Looks like more spelled out rules are needed for computer use in the workplace.

  4. My goodness! Would anyone want this pervert in a classroom of impressionable teenagers??? This firing was most appropriate & had NOTHING to do with his First Amendment Rights.

  5. We terminated an employee after other employees noticed that this employee was ALWAYS on the internet (meanwhile her work producitvity was extremely low adn quality of work was poor). We started tracking how frequently she accessed her Facebbok and MYSpace pages. It was unbelievable. Her internet utilization was higher than everyone else in our office combined (we have an internet policy that states we are permitted to use the internet for personal use during break times and within reason). In addition to her high utilization she went a step futher to talk about specific work-related employees often times noting their names, where they live, etc. During her exit interview we insisted that she remove any reference to our company name and employee names. She was very resistant but we told her that WE had every intention of pursuing legal action if she did not comply. It took her 1-2 days to remove this content from her pages. We also fought against her receipt of unemployment benefits and and won. I was very new to HR at the time this occured. This was my first termination.

  6. I would think the parents of this guy’s students would have rioted if they hadn’t fired him. While he has a right to express himself, he doesn’t have a right to engage in inappropriate activity with his students. I find it interesting that, so many times, people try to take an obvious issue and make it into something entirely different so as to defend their behavior. This is a perfect example. He tried to make an “inappropriate conduct / behavior” issue into a “freedom of speech” issue. I’m glad the court cut through the BS and dealt with it logically.

  7. In a country based on democracy and that started with our Declaration of Independence, very few people understand what “rights” are. I see so many people confused because they have heard they have a right to free speech, religion, to arm themselves, from unreasonable searches, and so forth.

    They don’t realize that the Bill of Rights guarantees that the GOVERNMENT will not infringe on these rights. It doesn’t say that anyone else has to. It gets more confusing if an employer is an “at will” employer or if there is an “employment contract” where rights are bargained for in the employment relationship.

    The real confusion occurs when the government, through the courts, tries to enforce one person’s right over another person’s right.

    For instance, a rabbi hires a Catholic cook. The cook believes she has the right to freedom of religion and speech. She puts up crucifixes in the Temple, passes out the New Testement to members, and eats ham at the kitchen table. The rabbi objects. The government is not involved. The woman sues and the courts tell the rabbi, that he must make a reasonable space available for her to eat her ham, pass out literature, and put her Crucifix. The court just violated the constitution. In that example, the government just infringed on the Rabbi’s and the Jewish congregation’s rights of religion. The court should only be involved if the GOVERNMENT was violating the individual’s rights, like say a local government imposing it’s views on the Rabbi.

    The usual way the government gets involved is when a person believes they have a right. They get fired. They apply for unemployment and sue. The state decides that the firing is not justified and grants unemployment and charges the employer. The courts don’t do their job to tell the state that they can’t do this. The lawsuit that the employee files, however, does not get dismissed summarily and so the lawsuit leads to mediation where the lawyers find a “compromise” rather than having a large expensive legal battle.

    Under the guise of protecting “safety” or imposing “fairness”, the government is more involved in telling people how they should live their life, spend their liberty, or where they should pursue their happiness than ever before.

    We have become use to government intervention in our lives. There probably aren’t too many people alive who remember what “freedom” really feels like or means. If people do not take responsibilitiy for themselves, then the government will be glad to step in and take it.

  8. Michael R says:

    We terminated an employee because she had created an email account and was harrassing a manager’s wife and telling her that he had been sleeping around on her and blah blah blah. We terminated her and refused unemployment without any fight.

    There is a fine line between privacy and rights. That piece of computer equipment belonged to the company, the information on it belonged to the company, any traffic to or from it was meant to be solely for company use. If personal information is divulged on a piece of company property then it is being made readily available to the company to act on as they see fit. Very subjective but yes if such an agreement has been signed then the employee is SOL.

  9. Mike’s anser & essay was very informative. Sometimes, we forget or misunderstand that business of “rights”. Thanks

  10. Many times people think they have a right to something which is not a constitutionally guaranteed right. This “right” they think they have is actually a strong desire. They may be thinking it’s a right because of the “right to the pursuit of happiness” which doesn’t name specific things one can or cannot do in that pursuit, so it seems to become a catch-all. So, they think they can use their work computer any way they want and, since the material is their personal stuff, the company can’t look at it. This idea of a “right” to do what we want, no matter how it might infringe on others’ rights to live their lives can be seen in so many instances of discourteous behavior, from obnoxiously loud car radios, late night parties, reckless driving to poor customer service – you name it. It’s kind of hard to believe that people extend their “rights” into all these ways, and then are shocked and outraged if they don’t like the reactions or consequences to their behavior.

  11. Mike R,

    Coming from a registered unaffiliated voter, your last two paragraphs will probably become more and more relevent during the next four years. Interestingly, the previous eight didn’t show much in the way of a government getting out of the way of the individual, either. Americans really need to think about how much additional government control and regulation affects one’s ability to govern oneself. What’s scary is the majority of Americans support federal government intervention into state or private matters (ex. medical insurance, marriage definitions). If the majority opinion is in direct opposition to the founding principles of our country, does that mean we should begin to move in a different direction? Or do we tell the majority of Americans their views are unamerican? Sorry to get political and pseudo-philosophical, but the can of worms was already open.

  12. Actually, the idea of “rights” does come in to play here if we’re talking about a public school. If Spanierman was a government employee who felt that his employer was violating his right to free speech, that would be a legitimate claim. Employees of private companies do not have a right to free speech in the context of their employment. Employees of the government do.

    I’m not saying I agree or disagree with the school’s or the courts decision, only that Spanierman does actually have first amendment rights in this context if he was indeed a public employee.

  13. Just to clarify:

    This is from Mike R: “They don’t realize that the Bill of Rights guarantees that the GOVERNMENT will not infringe on these rights.”

    In this situation, Spanierman’s employer is the government. That’s what makes this case different from one where, say, an employee at a private company gets fired for posting an offensive bumper sticker on her car.

  14. Barbara L. Briggs, Esq. says:

    As an employment lawyer, I need to point out that even “freedom of speech,” which is generally relevant when the employer is a governmental entity such as a school, is subject to restrictions. For example, no one can falsely yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater, if there really isn’t a fire, without breaking the law, becuase it puts people in danger of being crushed to death by a crowd. No one can publish child porn without breaking the law, because we have decided as a society that this is indecent and exploits children. Free speech laws are governed by the strictest standard of scrutiny by the courts–laws passed by any type of government must bear a direct relationship to a compelling governmental interest. Endangering moviegoers and exploiting children are compelling government interests.

    In this case, the teacher’s conduct probably violated several constitutionally sound local statutes protecting children, parents and the community at large. His conduct was also obviously relevant to his suitability to teach children. Unless you are an H.R. representative for the government, however, generally it is a good idea, in a diplomatic way, to train employees at the very beginning of their employment that they have no free speech “rights” with regard to their employer, at-will or unionized. To a great degree, you can, and should, be “Big Brother,” becuase you need to protect your employer, within the constraints of local, state and federal law. This is, of course, not legal advice, but my personal effort to help to educate readers.

  15. Lacey Jay says:

    I got fired yesterday for having a myspace page and being friends with on of the boys that was in the childrens home I worked for (while there is still 4 other workers that are his friends and they have yet to fire them). My boss said it was “TACKY”. I’m not sure where I should go from here.

Speak Your Mind

*