N.Y. Teacher's Firing Overturned, Despite Facebook Wish that Students Drown

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn March 6, 2012In: Public Sector, Social Media in the Workplace

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Christine Rubino had been a teacher in Brooklyn for 15 years without any disciplinary history when she was terminated in response to comments she posted about students on her Facebook page. Specifically, Rubino posted that her 5th-grade students "deserved to drown." And, when asked whether she would "let little Kwame float away," Rubino responded with: "Yes. I would not throw a life jacket in for a million," reports the Huffington Post.

Even more shockingly, the comments came just one day after a 12-year-old girl drowned during a class trip to Long Island beach.

A disciplinary hearing officer found the teacher guilty of "misconduct, neglect of duty, and conduct unbecoming her profession" and, as a result, Rubino was terminated. She subsequently appealed to the N.Y. Supreme Court, which overturned the decision.

Writing for the court, Justice Barbara Jaffee described Rubino's posts as "repulsive." Yet, she went on to conclude that, under the circumstances, the termination was too disproportionate to the offense, thereby requiring that the termination decision be overturned.

The district does not have a social-media policy but, according to the N.Y. Post, fired three teachers last year for inappropriate online posts.

This decision is a difficult one to reconcile with some of the recent cases in which similar comments were held to warrant the termination of a teacher. But Evan Brown writes on his Internet Cases blog about an even more perplexing part of the court's decision. He describes the court's take on the issue of proportionality between the nature of the wrong and the consequences imposed as "contextual integrity." Here's the language from the court's decision that Evan cites to:

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E]ven though petitioner should have known that her postings could become public more easily than if she had uttered them during a telephone call or over dinner, given the illusion that Facebook postings reach only Facebook friends and the fleeting nature of social media, her expectation that only her friends, all of whom are adults, would see the postings is not only apparent, but reasonable.


Note the potential impact of the last part of this sentence. The potential impact is enormous. Essentially, the court says that ignorance of consequences for Facebook posts is legally sufficient to establish a reasonable expectation of privacy. This single sentence effectively recognizes the right to publish to a limited audience; a concept that has been consistently rejected by courts. At least until now.

Rubino v. City of N.Y., 2012 NY Slip Op 30246(U) (N.Y. Sup. Feb. 1, 2012) (PDF)

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