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Employees shouldn’t have to worry about Facebook free speech

Published: Monday, November 7, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, November 9, 2011 00:11

In the age of social media, students are constantly warned about what they post on their Facebook page or Twitter account, as prospective employers may be reading. For those who have jobs, it is considered bad form to trash talk one's employer online, even on private pages bosses can't see.

Apple, in particular, has become notorious for its zero-tolerance policy on negative employee remarks. An Apple employee in the U.K. was fired for "gross misconduct" after talking bad about Apple on his private Facebook page.

Such actions, however extreme, are understandable on the part of companies who want to present the right public image. However, businesses go too far when they penalize employees for stating opinions wholly unrelated to their jobs.

Adrian Smith, a property manager in England, was demoted and received a 40 percent pay cut after posting about gay marriage on his personal Facebook page, which only his friends could read.

Commenting on a BBC News Online story about plans to allow gay marriage ceremonies in British churches, Smith wrote, "If the state wants to offer civil marriages to the same sex, then that is up to the state, but the state shouldn't impose its rules on places of faith and conscience," according to BBC News.

He also wrote, "The Bible is quite specific that marriage is for men and women."

Smith's comments can hardly be classified as hate speech. He was simply stating his personal view on an issue that has little to do with Trafford Housing Trust (THT), the company he works for. A THT spokeswoman said to BBC News, "Mr. Smith was disciplined for his breach of company policy. The trust made no comment about any personal beliefs that he holds."

However, the demotion seems entirely motivated by a difference in personal beliefs. It is unreasonable for employers to expect all employees to hold the same, non-work-related opinions, and employees should not be penalized for voicing their opinions, even if they're not the most popular ones.

Here in America, where freedom of speech and belief should be more clearly established, a New Jersey school teacher grabbed national headlines for calling homosexuality a "sin" that "breeds like cancer" on her Facebook page last month, according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger.

While the teacher, Viki Knox, was writing about a school display in honor of Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender History Month, her comments were not direct criticism of the school and represent her personal religious beliefs.

The controversy begs the question of whether freedom of belief or political correctness is more important. Some have labeled Knox's comments as hate speech and called for her termination. However, her personal beliefs should have nothing to do with her ability to teach.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey issued a statement in Knox's defense, pointing out her free speech rights.

While employees should always watch what they say online, they should be allowed to express personal opinions without fear of repercussions.

Michael Hardcastle is a senior majoring in creative writing.

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