A legal perspective on social media twits

JUNE 2010

Given the speed in which information can be broadcast via social media platforms (and potentially to millions of people), users must consider potential legal consequences for posting information online via social media platforms.

Jamie White from law firm Edge Legal says the first court case in Australia dealing with social media posts involved an Adelaide man who was convicted of criminal defamation after posting false and misleading information about a police officer on Facebook.

“The defendant pleaded guilty to criminal defamation and was placed on a two-year, $500 good behaviour bond. The defendant claimed that he did not realise that a person could get in to trouble for things done on the internet,” says White.

The case serves as a strong warning that legal rules are not waived simply because conduct has taken place online.

Politicians, journalists and prison guards have all faced disciplinary action for deemed inappropriate use of social media in the workplace.

Most recently a journalist from The Age newspaper felt the consequences of social media postings. Catherine Deveny was recently terminated from her role with The Age for posting offensive tweets via Twitter during the Logies. She claimed it was ‘just like passing notes in class’.

So should employees be held to the ‘corporate standards’ of their employer with respect to online postings?

“Likely not, unless those standards are clearly stated in documents such as employment contracts and social media policies,” says White.

“Therefore, a prudent employer will ensure that these ‘corporate standards’ are reflected in those documents. This will allow an employer to subject an employee who breaches those ‘corporate standards’ to disciplinary action, including compelling them to remove or edit offending postings, formal warnings or dismissal.”

White advises employers and employees to treat the use of social media in the workplace with caution.

“Employees must familiarise themselves with their employer’s position and be sure not to overstep the mark. The consequences of doing so are real,” he says.

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