Earlier this week, The Columbus Dispatch reported that the Ohio State Highway Patrol has enacted a policy that will prevent state troopers from "posting pictures of themselves or others in uniform and from using the patrol’s ‘flying wheel’ insignia on social-networking sites without approval." Ironically, the policy appears to have been prompted by a trooper who apparently posted "inappropriate" photos of herself with another trooper which the Dispatch described in a manner that suggests she was not wearing her uniform. Nevertheless, the trooper apparently identified herself as a trooper on her MySpace page. The Dispatch reports, however, that the trooper did not realize that the photos could be viewed by the public.
As the article points out, the policy’s requirement that any social networking references to the patrol be pre-screened to ensure that they do not cause a loss of public confidence in or respect for the agency may raise some First Amendment free speech issues. The concern is understandable, however, in light of reports from CNN that the city of Philadelphia has been sued for alleged racial discrimination and harassment stemming from a social networking site operated by some of its police officers.
Though private sector employers do not face the same First Amendment issues that public employers like the Highway Patrol do, the prospect of previewing employees’ personal social networking sites for employer references is daunting in and of itself. Rather than prescreening, which is largely impractical, there are services that will permit businesses to monitor what is being said about them on social media.
Regardless, it is important that employees understand that when they reference their employer on their various social networks sites, what they say will reflect not only on themselves but on their employer.
A copy of the Dispatch article can be found here.