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Freedom of expression versus responsibility to employer

Does simply expressing an unpopular opinion online warrant discipline or dismissal by employer?

A new phenomenon has come about in the world of employment relationships — the employee who is fired or disciplined because of something posted on social media websites.

I’ve already discussed situations, such as the one in British Columbia where employees of a car dealership were fired after making threats and derogatory comments about their managers on Facebook. And there was the case of the employee who was fired after posting a profane comment — apparently accidentally — on Chrysler’s Twitter account.

These are cases where employees may have overstepped their bounds and their posted comments were directly harmful to the employer and its management. Employers are entitled to expect a certain level of conduct from employees when they are associated with the employer. But how far does this expectation go?

A few days ago, Rogers Sportsnet fired one of its on-air hosts, Damian Goddard, after Goddard posted an anti-gay marriage comment on his personal Twitter account. The comment was in response to a hockey agent who had criticized a public service announcement by NHL player Sean Avery supporting gay marriage.

“I completely and wholeheartedly support (the agent) and his support for the traditional and TRUE meaning of marriage,” Goddard tweeted on March 10. He followed it up with a statement that his opinions were that of him alone. The next day, Sportsnet terminated his contract.

In a statement, Sportsnet said it had already been considering this dismissal because Goddard, a freelance contractor, was “not the right fit for our organization.”

Given the timing, though, it’s possible the tweet, and the negative comments it generated on Sportsnet’s website, was a factor.

How much leeway should employees have when using their personal social media accounts? There was no profanity in Goddard’s tweet and its follow-ups, he specifically stated it was his belief only and it was part of his Roman Catholic faith. Should he have kept his beliefs to himself because he worked for an employer in the public eye or should he have the right to express his opinion?

On the other hand, Goddard has a certain level of fame because of his position as a television host and he was well known to be associated with Sportsnet. At the time of his tweet, his photo was of him on the Sportsnet set. Though his Twitter account wasn’t heavily followed, his comment was broadly disseminated and many people used the Sportsnet website to criticize them. Does his expression of his opinion potentially harm the broadcaster to the point where dismissal is appropriate?

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. For more information, visit www.employmentlawtoday.com.

Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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