Manatee County Drama Teacher Suspended for Classroom AND Social Media & Social Networking Issues

October 31, 2010 at 7:06 pm | Posted in Employee, Employer, Employment Law, Legal, New employment laws/amendments, Social Media/Social Networking, union | Leave a comment
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My last few blogs have been on the Manatee County School District’s desire to implement a broad and potentially chilling social media/social networking policy governing the on-line behavior of teachers on and off the job.  There’s a case pending before DOAH challenging the proposed social media/social networking policy but while that matter is pending, the School Board has started proceedings to terminate a drama teacher, partially based on postings found on the teacher’s Facebook page.  The teacher, Charles Willis, “friended” over 100 current students and posted comments that could be viewed by all his “friends”, including posts regarding drinking too much, and posts which referenced popular internet abbreviations that usually include profanity, such as “WTF” and “LMFAO.”  Other allegations are being made regarding Mr. Willis but the notion that the complaint against Mr. Willis includes numerous references to his virtual life as posted on Facebook makes this an interesting matter from the employment law perspective.

The Herald Tribune in Sarasota has written several articles on Mr. Willis and the actions of the Manatee County School District, which links are provided below:

http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20101021/ARTICLE/10211054

The Herald Tribune also provided a link to the allegations being alleged against Mr. Willis such that his ability to continue to teach is in jeopardy:

http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20101021/ARTICLE/10211054

Readers, what do you think?  Do you believe teachers should be held to a different standard than other professionals as regards to their on-line communications?  Should a teacher be allowed to “friend” students?  Should teachers be prohibited from communicating with students for any reason – including extra curricular service clubs or for community service purposes?  Should teachers be restricted in criticizing administration, the School Board, curriculum, or laws regulating education or educators?  How does the First Amendment come into play, or does it?

Tom Lyons, a regular columnist for the Herald Tribune, provided two recent columns on the issues of both the Manatee County School District’s proposed policy and Mr. Willis.

http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20100921/COLUMNIST/9211019?p=2&tc=pg

http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20101021/ARTICLE/10211054

While I do not necessarily agree with the views expressed by Mr. Lyons, I do think there’s fodder for debate and discussion in both of his columns.  As someone who represents companies and sometimes individuals in employment related disputes, the notion of the blurring of private life vs. public life is regularly blurred and confusion about the “rules” exists on both sides of the table.  Taking the step of having policies in place provides a level playing field but overreaching will result in morale issues, some of which may be insurmountable.

Gentle readers, I look forward to your thoughts on these very current issues.  Times are changing, how we communicate and interact with each other is changing too – should we focus on how to address those changes or should we be the proverbial ostriches with our heads in the sand?

I will continue to provide updates on this issue – and on the rule challenge filed by the teacher’s union related to Manatee County School District’s proposed social media/social networking policy.

A reader’s review of the above information does not establish an attorney client relationship between the reader and the Sensenig Law Firm, P.A. The above information is not legal advice and should not be relied upon as such.

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Update on Manatee County School District’s proposed social networking policy

October 26, 2010 at 6:33 pm | Posted in Employee, Employer, Employment Law, Legal, New employment laws/amendments, Social Media/Social Networking, union | 2 Comments
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The Manatee School Board was scheduled to vote Monday October 25th on a controversial social networking policy discussed previously on this blog.  The issue was tabled on Monday due to the Manatee Education Association – the teacher’s union in Manatee County – and Manatee Education Association member Patricia Barber’s filing of a “Petition to Invalidate Rule” with the Department of Administrative Hearings, “DOAH”.   Paragraph 42 of the filed Petition gets to the crux of  the matter:

The Policy gives the District unbridled discretion: (i) to discipline employees in whatever manner it pleases, regardless of the severity of the conduct; (ii) to violate Chapter 447, Fla. Stat. by determining appropriate discipline without collective bargaining, as required by law; (iii) to identify conduct, without any articulated standard, which the District deems inappropriate or in violation of the Policy at its sole discretion; (iv) to determine the meaning of vague and undefined Policy terms, such as “inappropriate statements,” “inappropriate communications,” and “offensive documents,” among others; to discretionarily deem materials “offensive” or “inappropriate”, even though discipline would result from this whim; (v) to regulate and punish, without limitation, the content of District employees’ private email communications and internet postings made on their own time, from their home computers, and from private operated servers; (vi) to discipline employees for engaging in aspects of their private lives protected by Art. I., s. 23, Florida Constitution (“Right to Privacy”), for which freedom from government intrusion is constitutionally guaranteed; (vi) to discipline employees for exercising speech on matters of public concerns, contrary to Art. I, s. 4, Florida Constitution, and the First Amendment, U.S. Constitution; and (vii) to engage in searches of employee property which may violate Art. I, s. 12, Florida Constitution and the Fourth Amendment, U.S. Constitution.  The foregoing list is not exhaustive.”

Go to the following address for a copy of the entire Petition:  http://www.doah.state.fl.us/docdoc/2010/009760/10009760M-101910-12273827.PDF.  If the link or address does not work, you can search for the case on DOAH’s website using the case number, 10-9760RP at http://www.doah.state.fl.us.  The Manatee County School Board’s proposed social networking/social media policy is attached as an exhibit to the Petition.  There’s definitely some interesting reading here!

As written, the proposed policy could be broadly construed as permitting discipline against teachers in Manatee County for making negative or offensive comments on public policy issues on social media sites, including but not limited to Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and Twitter.  Private sector employers regularly restrict employee’s speech regarding the employer, the employer’s workforce, the employer’s clients, and essentially, the employer’s brand.  The difference here is that public sector employees are being subjected to restrictions on potentially private speech; speech that they are likely protected to make under Article I, §23 of the Florida Constitution:

Every natural person has the right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion into the person’s private life except as otherwise provided herein. This section shall not be construed to limit the public’s right of access to public records and meetings as provided by law.

The Manatee School District is a governmental entity so unlike private employers, Florida’s Constitutional Right to Privacy should apply to actions by the School District.  The Manatee County School District denies trying to govern private communication and instead reiterates that teachers are bound by a Code of Ethics and the social networking policy simply reminds teachers that the Code of Ethics may apply to such communication.

Until DOAH hears the matter, the Manatee County School District will delay voting on the policy.  A hearing before DOAH is currently scheduled for November 19th.  Stay tuned for updates!

For additional information about the policy and the School District’s meeting, read Natalie Neysa Alund’s article found in the Bradenton Herald:  http://www.bradenton.com/2010/10/26/2682453/noles-logo-proposal-still-unsettled.html.

A reader’s review of the above information does not establish an attorney client relationship between the reader and the Sensenig Law Firm, P.A. The above information is not legal advice and should not be relied upon as such.

Manatee County Schools Social Media Policy Update: Twitter, Facebook & Friending – “To friend or not to friend, that is the question.”

October 5, 2010 at 2:20 pm | Posted in Social Media/Social Networking | 1 Comment
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At its September meeting, the Manatee School Board decided to move forward with its plan to restrict the use of teachers in Manatee County from social media and social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and many others. As was stated in my prior blog entry, the social media/social networking policy proposed by the Manatee School District prohibits teachers from communicating with students through such sites without parental permission, and prohibits teachers from using the Manatee County School district’s name in online forums without permission. The ACLU is rattling cages and saying such a policy violates the right of teachers to free speech. The Manatee County teacher union joined in the criticism of the proposed restrictions and voiced the opinion that the rules are too restrictive.

The Manatee School Board’s attorney informed the School Board that under the Ethical Code of Conduct under which teachers are bound and can be disciplined for violating, off duty behavior can result in consequences at the workplace. This code applies to all manner of conduct, whether on-line or taking place in the “real” world.

The Miami School District allows teachers to use Facebook to post assignments and answer questions from students. The Santa Rosa School District put a social media/social networking policy in place but rescinded it soon thereafter when suit was threatened. Lee County considered implementing a policy but instead issued guidelines advising teachers that what they post is public; information posted on the internet is out there forever and available to anyone so use caution and common sense when posting.

A public hearing is scheduled for 5:45 on October 25th at the School Board Administration Building in Manatee County. This should be a raucous good time! I will provide an update about the meeting on this blog.

A reader’s review of the above information does not establish an attorney client relationship between the reader and the Sensenig Law Firm, P.A. The above information is not legal advice and should not be relied upon as such.

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