It’s no secret that social media has blurred the lines between private and personal. 78% percent of Americans have social media profiles, and naturally, some of those belong to teachers. The combination of those facts resulted in a number of controversies. Back in 2011, parents complained about a Facebook picture of a teacher holding glasses of wine and beer, which eventually got her fired. If a picture can do so much harm, comments and posts on other platforms such as Twitter and Instagram can do as well. So, what are teachers’ rights on social media? And what is the policy of schools to protect themselves but also to respect freedom of speech and employment rights?
Essentially, schools’ social media policies need to comply with two sets of regulations. Those are constitutional right defined by the US Supreme Court and the employment rights. Now more about that.
School districts don’t want anything on their teachers’ social media profiles that would affect their reputation. Teachers, on the other hand, want to enjoy the limitless possibilities of social media without restrictions. So, who’s wrong and who’s right under a constitutional test? Sadly, teachers’ speech is not very much under protection. Some would say not at all.
But here’s a scenario that could result in discipline. Teachers can lose their job if they speak up on social media in a way that could harm the employer. In other words, if a teacher questions the professionalism of the school/colleges/employers, then he/she can get fired.
So, what’s the best strategy for teachers when it comes to social media? One thing they could do is to write their posts with disclaimers. They would signify that what you post is a personal opinion and has nothing to do with employment. However, it’s best to avoid posting about work-related issues. Although, there are some exceptions which we’ll discuss below.
Workers Rights, Collective Bargaining
The Supreme Court wasn’t really interested in protecting public employees’ speech. However, the National Labor Relations Boards took employees’ side labeling the social media policy too restrictive.
After a number of big rulings, social media policies for employees have seen considerable improvements. Policies can no longer restrict the “Section 7” speech, explicitly or implicitly. But what is Section 7 exactly? The National Labor Relations Act the section guarantees that “employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”
Therefore, any school policy that restricts Section 7 is not valid. Moreover, if the rule was intended as a response to union activity it is again invalid.
So, if you are a teacher feel free to tweet about working conditions or union activity. Doing so you are under the protection of Section 7. Nevertheless, beware that statements that only criticize or mock the employer do not count.
Teachers’ right on social media is still a bit ambiguous. On one hand, school districts should come up with policies that protect them from harmful posts. On the other hand, they also should be careful not to violate teachers’ employment and speech rights. It is pretty difficult to combine both, especially considering how unpredictable and ruthless social media can be.
The NLRB is still in process of defining the legal boundaries for this matter. As they figure out what is under protection and what is not under the National Labor Relations Act, the fate of all the teachers and their tweets isn’t crystal clear. School districts might not catch up with the newest updates. So, until then teachers should think twice before hitting the publish button.