Posted 02-10-2010

Tara Richerson worked for a school district as a coach and mentor to new teachers. She was an active blogger, as well. One day she put up a post about a new co-worker:

Save us White Boy!… He comes across as a smug know-it-all creep. And that’s probably the nicest way I can describe him… And he’s white. And male. I know he can’t help that, but I think the District would have done well to recruit someone who has other connections to the community… Mighty White Boy looks like he’s going to crash and burn.

About another teacher who was a union official, Richerson blogged: “What I wouldn’t give to draw a little Hitler mustache on the chief negotiator.”

After a number of co-workers complained about Richerson’s postings attacking co-workers, the union, and the school district, and after several teachers said they would not work with her any more, the school district transferred and demoted Richerson. Richerson sued, claiming violation of her First Amendment right to free speech. But the federal trial and appellate courts ruled against her. The trial judge called Richerson’s behavior “salacious

[,] mean spirited… a breach of confidentiality, it was racist, sexist, and bordered on vulgar.” And the appellate court agreed, holding in 2009 that Richerson’s blog posts, which contained “several highly personal and vituperative comments” were disruptive, eroded work relationships and interfered with her job performance, thereby justifying the district’s disciplinary decision.

The appeals court wrote: “Common sense indicates that few teachers would expect that they could enter into a confidential and trusting relationship with Richerson after reading her blog. Accordingly, the district court did not err in concluding that the legitimate administrative interests of the school district outweighed Richerson’s First Amendment interests.”

(Richerson v. Beckon, 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 12870 (9th Cir. 2009))

What this means to you:

When dealing with employees who blog about work or post about their jobs on Facebook or other social media sites, employers must carefully balance employee rights with legitimate business interests. Your company’s internet use policy should have clear guidelines on what’s permitted and what’s not. And all employees, especially managers and supervisors, should be trained on your policy and the law.

Information here is correct at the time it is posted. Case decisions cited here may be reversed. Please do not rely on this information without consulting an attorney first.