MySpace and Employment Law have crossed paths again. This time, they intersect, again, in education law. But this isn’t the first time.
You may remember Stacy Snyder, the “Drunken Pirate,” who, at the time, was a student in the Education program at Millersville State University. In a moment of poor judgment, Snyder posted a photo of herself in a pirate hat, drinking, captioned “drunken pirate” on her personal MySpace page. School officials learned of the photo and refused to give Snyder a teaching credential because they believed the picture promoted underage drinking.
Alas, another teacher has fallen prey to MySpace. A federal District Court in Connecticut has upheld the decision of a school board in that State, which voted to not renew a teacher’s contract because of content posted on his MySpace profile. The court found that the non-renewal decision did not violate the teacher’s constitutional rights to Free Speech or Free Association.
A high school teacher, Jeffery Spanierman, apparently created a MySpace profile, which he used to communicate with students. The discussions concerned a mix of topics, some of which were unrelated to the school. Of course, Spanierman’s venture into the world of social networking soon came to the attention of the school administration. An administrator viewed the profile and believed it contained inappropriate comments and “peer-like” discussion with students. Spanierman deleted the profile after these concerns were brought to his attention.
But the lure of the social networking site proved to strong for Mr. Spanierman to long resist. Shortly after deleting the original profile, Spanierman created a second one. After learning of the second profile, Spanierman was placed on an administrative leave. Ultimately, the school district decided not to renew Spanierman’s teaching contract. Spanierman filed suit against the school district and various individual officials alleging several violations of his constitutional rights. In particular, Spanierman claimed that his rights of Free Association and Free Speech had been breached.
The District Court rejected Spanierman’s arguments. Although the court determined that Spanierman was not acting pursuant to his official duties as a teacher in maintaining the MySpace page, it found that the page’s content did not deal with matters of public concern. The sole exception to this was a short poem on the Iraq war. But there was no evidence that any administrator retaliated against Spanierman for expressing his views on that conflict in verse. The Court went on to note that the school district would likely have been able to demonstrate that Spanierman’s “speech” would have been sufficiently disruptive so as to outweigh any the First Amendment value it possessed.
The Court also rejected the teacher’s free association claim. MySpace may be a social networking website, but here, there was “no evidence in the present case that MySpace, as an organization, purports to speak out on matters of public concern.”
Off-duty conduct as grounds for termination is a common topic in employment law. It is not uncommon for employers to include “morals clauses” in employment contracts. And social-networking sites are not the only forums in which employees are getting “busted.” You may remember the recent scandal involving not the internet, but a local newspaper, which ran unfavorable photographs of the then-president of the community college engaging in off-duty conduct that reflected negatively on his leadership and judgment. Robert Paxton, resigned after the paper published a photograph of him pouring beer into a young woman’s mouth.
Companies will not risk their reputations on drunken pirate escapades or inappropriate MySpace relationships. Few states offer protection under the law for employees’ off-duty conduct. Delaware is not one of those states–employers have full authority to determine what actions constitute “bad behavior,” and can result in termination.