Annual Meeting 2010

Slander or Satire? When Does Social Media Cross Legal Lines?

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“When you post something to the Web, you have to ask yourself, ‘Is this defamatory, satire or just plain mean?”

Blogger Heather Armstrong issued the warning to attendees at an event on legal issues that surround the social media explosion Friday at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco. Armstrong is most famous for her satiric commentary about her job as a Web designer and graphic artist on her blog, Upon discovery of the blog by her higher-ups, Armstrong was fired. She never challenged her firing or identified her employer, but the term “dooce” has come to mean getting the ax for something you’ve written on your website. On her blog, she warns readers: “BE YE NOT SO STUPID.”

Facebook, blogs, Twitter and texts have become a minefield for employers and employees in the legal arena. Reasonable expectations of privacy and questions of ownership further blur the lines of legality as employees conduct company business on personal phones or send intimate messages using company technology.

Which presents the quandary: Can a business’ social media policy control what content is published? Or should employers accept that the best they can do is attempt to manage and negate the risks of social media snafus? Two of the panelists, social media legal experts Marylee Abrams and Kenneth Kunkle, disagreed on the level of control companies can exert over employees. However, they both agreed that all businesses should have fluid social media policies that can quickly adapt to changing technology.

Employers should clearly define work technology versus personal technology and address how each may be used during office hours, Abrams said. Boundaries for business relationships must be firmly established. For example, managers should not “friend” or “follow” an employee online, she added. Employees should also be advised that they do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to company email accounts.

For her part, Armstrong, who was chosen as one of Forbes’ 30 Most Influential Women In Media in 2009, demonstrated that social media can also be a powerful equalizer for consumers when pitted against large corporations. In what she referred to as “the Maytag incident,” Armstrong recounted how, after numerous phone calls to the company, she finally took to Twitter and tweeted her dissatisfaction with her brand-new, broken $1,300 washing machine to her 1.3 million followers. The next day, Armstrong received a phone call from a Maytag vice president, and her washer was immediately fixed.

“I encourage all of my followers to use Twitter this way,” Armstong said. To the legal audience, Armstrong’s anecdote only further verified the complexities of social media in relation to a person that posts an angry blog comment, or even an innocuous tweet, and the audience that reads that interaction.

“Not everyone will use the right words or refrain from saying something slanderous,” Armstrong said. However, when it comes to the social media beast, she added, “It’s not a First Amendment issue. It’s a brave new world.”

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