Recently, a New York City public school teacher nearly lost her job after posting derogatory remarks on her private Facebook page about hating her students, whom she called “devil[‘]s spawns.” Although a hearing officer concluded that her employment should be terminated, the Supreme Court vacated that decision, which a unanimous panel of the Appellate Division affirmed.
On June 22, 2010, a student in the New York City public school system drowned during a school trip to the beach. The next day, when the fifth-grade teacher was at home after school, she posted the following comment on the private portion of her Facebook page: “After today, I am thinking the beach sounds like a wonderful idea for my 5th graders! I HATE THEIR GUTS! They are the devils [sic] spawn!” When one of her Facebook friends posted, “[O]h you would let little Kwame float away!” the teacher responded, “Yes, I wld [sic] not throw a life jacket in for a million!!” The postings came to the attention of the school due to the report of one of the teacher’s Facebook friends, who was a colleague at her school.
The teacher initially denied posting the comments, claiming her friend posted them to her account, but later admitted she did, in fact, post them herself. The teacher explained that “she did so after a hard day at work” and deleted the comments three days later. She also apologized, recognized she “chose the wrong forum to vent,” and noted she changed her Facebook usage to keep in touch with close friends and family only and avoided any further expression of her opinions on Facebook.
The hearing officer ruled the teacher should be fired for her misconduct due to the “public nature of the online postings” and her breach of the Department of Education’s trust. In reversing that decision, the Supreme Court declined to consider the merits of the teacher’s claim her comments were protected speech under the First Amendment, but observed that terminating the teacher’s employment would be “inconsistent with the spirit of the [F]irst [A]mendment” because Facebook is a “rapidly evolv[ing]” forum in which “one may express oneself as freely and rapidly as when conversing on the telephone with a friend.” The Supreme Court further reasoned that although the teacher should have known that her postings “could become public,” it was reasonable for the teacher to believe that only her online friends would see her comments, given the “illusion that Facebook postings reach only Facebook friends and the fleeing nature of social media.” The Appellate Division unanimously affirmed in a two-page opinion. Notably, the panel observed that the teacher had posted the comments “to vent her frustration only to her online friends” and not “to the public at large.”
The lesson here is simple: every social media user must exercise the utmost caution and be mindful that any comments made in this context are, or may easily become, “public” and lead to disastrous consequences. Here, the Court ultimately spared the teacher from paying the high price of losing her employment over comments she made about her students that she did not intend to become public. The Court’s decision was based largely on its perception of “the casual and fleeting nature of social media” and its understanding of user perceptions of privacy. However, such understanding is, by no means, uniform; indeed, it is significant to remember that other judges have likened Twitter usage to “screaming out of a window” with no expectation of privacy and, therefore, one might expect a different result in other courts. A good rule of thumb? Think twice before posting — if you wouldn’t want your boss to see what you have to say, then you probably shouldn’t post it in a social media setting!