If You Tweet It, They Will Come

As lawyers, we are often a conservative bunch. This may especially be so for litigators, who encounter the worst case scenarios of common experiences each and every day. Social media employment law cases are no exception. Inevitably, you will find yourself asking, “What on earth were they thinking when they did that?!”

But undoubtedly, social media tools can be extremely useful to professionals like us. Unfortunately, most lawyers seem to limit their use of social media to LinkedIn and writing the occasional blog post. I want to take this opportunity to encourage more lawyers to actually use social media. Namely, I aim to encourage you to start a Twitter account today. And, no, this is not done to try to attract more followers to my account (but who’s to stop you once you join?).

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What’s in a “Like”?

A big part of why I am so intrigued by social media and employment law is because of the extent of information people are willing to share with others about themselves through these mediums. One way this can be accomplished is through the “like” feature on Facebook. Facebook describes the “like” feature as “a way to give positive feedback or to connect with things you care about on Facebook.” Once someone hits the “like” button, a caption to the content indicates his or her positive affirmation.

Consumer Reports (p. 28, June 2012) recently featured the extent to which people “like” things on Facebook. A national survey of active Facebook adults revealed that over the previous 12 months, 4.7 million “liked” a page pertaining to health conditions or treatments, 2.3 million “liked” a page regarding sexual orientation, 7.7 million “liked” a page relating to religious affiliation, and 1.6 million “liked” a page pertaining to a racial or ethnic affiliation. I raise these statistics with employers when I talk about social media because  these all relate to protected class statuses under the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act, Wis. Stat. § 111.31 et seq. Taking an adverse employment action after learning an individual liked such things as these may open the door to a charge of unlawful discrimination.

A recent decision out of the Eastern District of Virginia is bringing front and center questions concerning the significance of a “like” in a First Amendment context. In Bland  v. Roberts, 11CV0045 (E.D. Va. Apr. 24, 2012), several deputy sheriffs claimed they were unlawfully fired for supporting the sheriff’s election opponents in an election the incumbent sheriff ultimately won. Two of the plaintiffs claimed that the retaliation was due, in part, to the fact that they expressed support on the election opponent’s Facebook page. The court found the only evidence of a “statement of support” was through each individual “liking” the challenger’s Facebook page. The court found that a “like” was not sufficient speech to support the plaintiffs’ freedom of speech retaliation claim. The court explained:

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Illinois Prohibits Employers From Seeking Social Networking Passwords

On August 1, 2012, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed into law a bill that prohibits employers from requesting or requiring employees or prospective employees from providing “any password or other related account information” to gain access to the individual’s social networking account. Ill. Public Act 097-0875. By enacting the legislation, Illinois joins Maryland as states that prohibit employers from obtaining social media account password information. The law amends the Illinois Right to Privacy in the Workplace Act, 820 ILCS 55, and is effective January 1, 2013.

Illinois’ new social media legislation confirms that employers maintain the right to create lawful workplace policies that regulate the use of computer equipment, e-mail, and internet use. Moreover, the law also allows employers to monitor employee use of the employer’s electronic equipment and e-mail. Employers also may still obtain publicly available information concerning employees or prospective employees under the new law.

As part of the Right to Privacy in the Workplace Act, the law is subject to investigation and enforcement by the Illinois Department of Labor. Potential damages under the law include reasonable attorney’s fees if the violation is found to be willful and knowing.

This legislation comes in response to public criticism of reported incidences of employers seeking social media account password information for purposes of evaluating position applicants. Illinois employers who currently engage in such practices should be aware that any hiring policy or practice that requires applicants or employees to reveal such information will be a violation of Illinois law after the end of the calendar year.

Cross-posted to General Counselor.


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