Our Wired World

First Amendment and Social Media Don’t Mix

When it comes to speaking out, terms and conditions may apply…

by John David

Mr. David is president of David PR Group, in Miami Florida, a public relations firm focused on branding and strategic communication for businesses. He blogs regularly on topics of interest to salespeople, and shares them here. 

We feel it in our bones. Free speech is a cornerstone of our democracy, and the First Amendment guides many of our core beliefs. It shapes how we think as Americans and how we view ourselves compared to the rest of the world. But guess what? The First Amendment and social media don’t mix.

Yes, you can say practically anything online, often without legal consequence, but the First Amendment won’t protect you from losing your job, your livelihood or your reputation – and sometimes you lose all three.

Earlier this week, Hayley Geftman-Gold, a vice president and attorney for CBS, wrote on her Facebook page that she was not sympathetic to victims of the Las Vegas shooting because, she claimed, most country music fans are Republican. She was quickly fired.

Geftman-Gold wrote: “If they wouldn’t do anything when children were murdered I have no hope that Repugs will ever do the right thing. I’m actually not even sympathetic bc country music fans often are Republican gun toters.”

Nothing illegal about her comments. Her argument is insensitive and idiotic but well within her right to free expression as an American. Yet even a law license and a thorough understanding of the First Amendment didn’t help her keep her job.

Last year, United Airlines Pilot Michael Folk was suspended after tweeting that Hillary Clinton should be hanged for treason. Folk, who also serves in the West Virginia House of Delegates, let his political leanings, and some despicable word choices, directly impact his income. Again, he has every right to say it, but his employer didn’t, and shouldn’t, allow it.

Also last year, a Miami man went on an epic rant about the election in a local coffee shop. His disparaging words were captured on video and posted online, turning him into a viral sensation. The self-employed man lost clients almost immediately and is still rebuilding his tattered reputation. Did he say stuff that was offensive? Yes. Illegal or slanderous or defamatory? No. Yet severe punishment was meted out by the marketplace.

Careful what you say

Folk, who also serves in the West Virginia House of Delegates, let his political leanings, and some despicable word choices, directly impact his income

Though I feel like I have said this a million times, I will repeat that we have to be careful with what we say online and realize that every thought that pops into our head does not deserve to be a Facebook post or a tweet. I can’t defend the indefensible examples listed above, but many online problems arise from shoddy habits, poor word choices, failed attempts at humor, and even auto-correct. Exercise some extra care and you are much less likely to have a problem.

Careful where you say it

The average American can be caught on a surveillance camera 75 times per day. You are being watched in the bank, the grocery store and when you are pumping gas – and a bunch of other times each day. And when you erupt in the local bakery about the current price of scones, there are probably a dozen other confection lovers standing at the ready with cell phone cameras to film your blow up. We must be vigilant about our behavior because it is incredibly easy for all of us to be captured digitally and quickly publicized online.

Monitor yourself

Do me a solid and type your name into Google, right now. Is there anything on the first two to three pages that you don’t like? Is there anything coming up that will negatively impact your business? You won’t know unless you check. If you do business online, then you should be monitoring your online results continuously. It may be as simple as setting up a Google alert, but there are many efficient and cost-effective options available if you require something more robust. As an individual, you need not check your online results every day or even every week, but you should give yourself a Google check a few times per month.

If you find something negative online, be prepared to act. If an online crowd is forming over something you posted, a simple fix might be to engage, explain yourself, apologize or even delete it. If a situation is more dynamic, you might need some professional help. I’m always available to answer questions, so please feel free to reach out.