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The First Amendment of Social Media: Freedom of Tweet

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of expression from government interference. While it is within our right to say what we think without fear of prosecution from our Government, freedom of expression in social networks however, is something altogether different. In the court of public opinion, your words can and will be used against you. But what works against us, also works for us.

While the egosystem is seemingly rife with unintelligible chatter, it is, in and of itself, revealing a new direction for our culture and society.  In this brave new world of altruism and self actualization, the lines that divide offline and online personae and experiences blur into one real-time, real world lifeway. Indeed, the impact of social and mobile technology is profound. As a result, human behavior has diverted towards a very public genre of expression, discovery, and extroversion, and packaged in brevity and frequency.

We are beguiled by this new found freedom of speech, sharing a communal desire to find our voice, protected by a false sense of security. The statusphere and blogsphere are rich with perpetual observations and declarations, but we lose something in translation. While content was once king, in social media, where character and word count is precious, context ascends to the top of the ranks. In short form, context is elusive and in order to convey intent and desired outcomes, one must master the art and science of storytelling and influence. We must realize that what we think we’re saying might not convey as desired. There’s a difference between what we say and what is heard. And now with social media, intention is often eclipsed by abbreviation.


27-year old accountant Paul Chambers learned about context and character the hard way recently when he tested his Freedom of Tweet. In January 2010, Chambers Tweeted, “”Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!”

He was later convicted and fined. In November 2010, he lost his appeal. What was intended as a joke, in hindsight, is now vividly clear to see just how things can be taken out of context – especially on Twitter. Yes, his Tweet was in poor taste. His action was the catalyst for a national example of prudence. But, the Twitter community stood by Chambers and their Freedom of Tweet by uniting under the hashtag #IAmSpartacus upon learning his appeal was lost.  With homage to the film, Spartacus’s fellow gladiators demonstrated unanimity by declaring, “I am Spartacus.” Twitter denizens showed solidarity with Chambers by repeating his Tweet to the point of topping the Trends in Twitter for an entire day.  While many stand united on Twitter, the reality is that Chambers lost his job and still faces conviction and a significant legal bill.

Judge Jacqueline Davies said of the Tweet “It’s menacing in its content and obviously so. It could not be more clear. Any ordinary person reading this would see it in that way and be alarmed.”

Context vs. Intention

A Rude Awakening

Inner monologue and filters usually prevent us from uttering words that could haunt us or worse, harm us. Social Media erode these filters enticing us to share in public what might be better shared with discretion. Perhaps our screens shroud us in a protective light.

Either way, there is no shortage of stories where students are dismissed as candidates based on what college admissions officers discover on social networks. Accordingly, job candidates also lose opportunities without realization as HR managers discredit them based on what they share in social media. We’ve also read many stories where employees are fired for lambasting customers or  bashing management.

Our digital shadows work for and against us. When it comes to matters of education and employment, perhaps it is not wise to test our Freedom of Tweet unless it is advantageous to do so. In a groundbreaking case however, we see that the First Amendment of Social Media may in fact, officially take shape.  An employee who criticized her employer on Facebook was recently fired for doing so. Now the National Labor Relations Board accused American Media Response of illegally firing her.

According to the National Labor Board, Social Media are essentially digital water coolers. Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon expounded, “This is a fairly straightforward case under the National Labor Relations Act — whether it takes place on Facebook or at the water cooler, it was employees talking jointly about working conditions, in this case about their supervisor, and they have a right to do that.”

This landmark case will serve as precedent for the coming flood of cases to consume courts.

While common sense is uncommon, it seems that in this case, at least employees are covered even if judgment lapses. The National Labor Relations Act gives workers a federally protected right to form unions and it prohibits the punishment of workers for discussing working conditions or unionization.

This significant move by the NLB triggered a “lawflash” by Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, a law firm with a large labor and employment practice representing hundreds of companies, “Employers should review their Internet and social media policies to determine whether they are susceptible to an allegation that the policy would ‘reasonably tend to chill employees’ in the exercise of their rights to discuss wages, working conditions and unionization.”

In case you glossed over the above paragraph, it essentially says that your social media policy might open up the organization to potential complaints, suits, and liabilities.

With Social Media Comes Great Responsibility

Yes, social media is the democratization of information. We’re inspired to express ourselves and are rewarded every time we share a bit of who we are and what moves us with the recognition and validation of response and connection. But with this new voice and platform, we must also embrace a more informed era of consciousness. Now more than ever, vigilance becomes a virtue. While this so-called First Amendment of Social Media is written and tested in real time, it is up to us to say and do the things that share not only who we are, but also who we want to be personally and professionally.

I Tweet, therefore I am…protected?

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78 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “The First Amendment of Social Media: Freedom of Tweet”

  1. Kim Duncan says:

    I think that so many people my age (18-30) are upset that they should have to monitor what they say and do on the Internet. I used to be that way- if it’s MY facebook and MY twitter, then i should be allowed to say whatever i want, right? well, in some ways, yes. i can post whatever i want- the problem is, i need to be ready to take responsibility for what i say. yes, there are privacy settings on Facebook & Twitter but most companies have a way of getting around it. A part of me still thinks that some things should be kept private but unfortunately in this day and age and especially with how social media is growing, nothing is really private anymore.

    Basically, if you put it out on the Internet, you need to be prepared for anyone and everyone to see it. I don’t post anything on Facebook that I wouldn’t want my parents to read- it also helps that my parents are on Facebook! I know that there is the Freedom of Speech, but like Anna said, it’s not absolute. You still have to take responsibility for your words and actions. If tweeting about how drunk you got last night is worth losing a potential job over, then so be it. But with the way technology is going, pretty soon there won’t be privacy settings strict enough to keep everyone out.

    Think before you tweet everyone!
    Kim Duncan
    Oklahoma State University
    School of Media & Strategic Communications

  2. Jessica Ann Green says:

    The first time I heard about people getting punished for posts on Facebook or Twitter was when my brother’s high school decided to make an example out of a student that didn’t appreciate his math teacher. The post didn’t include profanity, just a general dislike for the teacher based on a grade. The school decided to take posts on social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter a serious wrongdoing if the content pertained to faculty, other students, or the school in general. I think censoring ourselves because others may not agree with what we have to say is an injustice to our First Amendment. With that said I agree threatening a person in a bullying harassing way is wrong and should be dealt with. Bullying, especially in grade school and higher can be very detrimental to a person. Other than keeping things polite in the sense people don’t attack others personally, people should be free to post what they want. Idle threats that are posted in the heat of emotion shouldn’t be held against people, but Paul Chambers what were you thinking? Most would probably assume Paul wasn’t serious, but at the very least most people who post or tweet know airports + violence = you’re going to be in a lot of trouble. I always try to think what others will think before I hit the send button, but I have to admit there are just sometimes when I can’t resist. It just feels too good to say exactly what’s on my mind, and for that I don’t apologize.

    Jessica Green
    Oklahoma State University
    School of Media and Strategic Communications

  3. Weston Shepherd says:

    Weston Shepherd
    Oklahoma State University
    School of Media and Strategic Communication

    I like the concept of the “First Amendment of Social Media” but just like anything else, there are shades of gray in all of this. I have the right to post as I please, Tweet as I please, etc., but the second that I say too much, post the wrong picture, so on and so forth–I take my professional career into jeapordy.

    You have rights, of course. But someone else has the power when people lose jobs over Facebook content. It happens and often times, rightfully so, but how much protection do we have actually have?

  4. Weston Shepherd says:

    Weston Shepherd
    Oklahoma State University
    School of Media and Strategic Communication

    I like the concept of the “First Amendment of Social Media” but just like anything else, there are shades of gray in all of this. I have the right to post as I please, Tweet as I please, etc., but the second that I say too much, post the wrong picture, so on and so forth–I take my professional career into jeapordy.

    You have rights, of course. But someone else has the power when people lose jobs over Facebook content. It happens and often times, rightfully so, but how much protection do we have actually have?

  5. Along the lines of what my classmates Sara King and Kim Duncan have posted, I also see responsibility as an important aspect of our lives online. Anyone who wishes to be taken seriously as a person must realize they will be held responsible for hitting that “send” button. The same is true of real life conversations. You don’t really know who is listening and what they will do with the information and opinions you release into the air or cyberspace. But when putting it into words, typed or spoken, you must recognize and decide if you want to be connected to that statement forever, no matter what happens. Yes you have rights, and if you are going to fight for them, then be ready to face the consequences good or bad.

    It’s true offline, and it’s true online. So it will be interesting to see how the National Labor Board’s case will pan out.

    Heather Spencer
    Oklahoma State University
    School of Architecture

  6. Rgdean says:

    Context is an elusive concept in regards to social media. I equate tweets, status updates, and other things of that nature as the online version of coming into a conversation among friends that you were not a part of. Some are broad, some are generic, some are inside jokes, and some conversations that you randomly engage in shock you. It’s an old cliche about coming into a conversation at the wrong time. Without context, the content can be misconstrued and absolutely present the wrong impression. Such was the case with Mr. Chambers. In this world of one sentence summing up our entire experience from something, or our thoughts or feelings, it is important to remember the importance of caution and prudence.

    I try to self-police myself by reminding myself that an irresponsible comment to a person is foolish and can’t be unsaid. By that same token, once an irresponsible tweet, comment, status, etc. is posted, it is very hard to retrieve that thought.

    Greg Dean
    Oklahoma State University
    School of Media and Strategic Communication

  7. Kylie Paul says:

    I would like to start by saying I respectfully disagree with Ken’s opinion on the Paul Chambers case. Many people are aware of the ruling in Schneck v. United States where dangerous (and therefore illegal) speech was described as something akin to shouting fire in a crowded theatre. in my opinion, what Mr. Chambers did was nothing like this. I think almost everyone has said something similar to that in times of great frustration. I know I have! Obviously it wasn’t in good taste to tweet about it, but since when do people go to court for doing something in bad taste? It should have been obvious that this man did not pose any real threat, if he had really planned on doing this I doubt he would have posted this on Twitter. I think this story is a great example of how America has changed post-9/11. In the age of wire tapping and the like, many believe you can never be too cautious.

    A great point that I think the article made was that “social media erodes our filter.” I agree with Samantha, sometimes I can not believe the things people post on Facebook and Twitter! I think social media has become so ingrained in us that it has become almost the norm to use it as a place to air your dirty laundry about a recent break-up or fight with a friend or to post any thought that pops into your head, whether it be appropriate for public viewing or not. Obviously, many need to learn where to draw the line when it comes to posting things online. An inappropriate post or picture could cost you an internship or job aka your future.

  8. Sarah West says:

    When facebook first started out mostly as college students you could pretty much say whatever you wanted. As the years have progressed and more people have become part of facebook the less you can say on the Internet. I think that it is not fair that you should have to be so careful what you say on your facebook but at the same time if you know you are friends with your boss or that your profile is not private than you should be smart enough to watch what you say, this is common sense.
    As far as text being taken in the wrong way, this is something that happens quite frequently. Even in my everyday texting there are many times when the person I am texting does not understand my attitude or tone of voice of the context of the message. I think that this is just something that is very hard to deal with and once again as twitter has evolved it is something that you have to think about before you send it as a text. You have to think about all the different ways people could translate what you are saying and while this might be difficult it is something we have to watch out for. It in a way comes back to the old saying “if you cant say anything nice than don’t say anything at all” because if its not nice than it is probably going to get back to that person that you were talking about. It will probably get there if it is something nice too but then it wouldn’t really be a bad thing so it doesn’t matter really.

    Sarah West
    Oklahoma State University
    School of Media and Strategic Communication

  9. Jordan Griffis says:

    It amazes me that in almost 2011 people still don’t know how to use discernment on the Internet. I remember when I first used facebook as a college freshman/sophomore or so, I would say and write EVERYTHING. As the years have gone on, social media has exploded and I’ve become friends with all these people (moms, former Sunday school teachers, employers, EVERYBODY) that make me want to keep my facebook pretty censored.
    If it’s your social media account, it’s your responsibility. Maybe that’s not 100 percent fair that you don’t get to say EVERYTHING you want online but I just don’t think it’s encroaching on your right to free speech too much to keep an eye on your fb wall. Get an anonymous blog if you have that much of a need to confess your incriminating behavior.
    I always just think: know that if you put it in the internet, it’s going to come back to haunt you. That’s life, be a grownup. I know there’s a lot of gray area in the this debate, so you better err on the side of safety if you ever want a job. How hard is it to just be professional?
    Jordan Griffis
    Oklahoma State University
    School of Media and Strategic Communications

  10. Gant Lee says:

    Gant Lee
    Oklahoma State University
    School of Strategic Communications

    I agree with Lauren K.

    I think that people should be allowed to have a life on social media outlets that is absolutely separate from their work. That said, I do believe that companies should intervene when it DOES involve them. And I think the government should get involved when it is an issue of security. The instance in which Paul Chambers said he would “blow the airport sky high” is inexcusable. That is a direct threat. If you’re angry, use a better choice of words. But you can’t post something like that FOR EVERYONE TO SEE and not expect to be punished. You may be alone behind a computer screen, but that does not mean you are anonymous and no longer have an identity. What a terrible idea…

  11. Al Michaels says:

    Great find thanks for sharing. Not sure I can agree with most, but good arguments none the less.

  12. Becca Brooks says:

    “Think before you tweet” should be a mandated law, obviously. Chambers’ comment is muttered by thousands of travelers daily, but he is biting his tongue (or thumbs) for broadcasting this death wish on Twitter. I feel sorry for Chambers, because he is not the only one to ever wish and type such a hateful joke online.

    Joke is the keyword, because most of the time people don’t mean 100% what they say in their status updates or tweets. This is another topic of its own, but one that concerns me. Why have a Twitter/Facebook/Internet at all if you aren’t going to be yourself? Sometimes Facebook seems like a place for people to be someone they are not. Hopefully someday it will be an honest reflection of a person, although you can’t completely know someone from viewing their website.

    Becca Brooks
    Oklahoma State University
    School of Media and Strategic Communication

  13. Jess Williams says:

    so is social media protected by the first amendment? was the first amendment established only for our congress. with today society where do the lines cross from public to private? can I not say for instance fuck the police on my Facebook page with out worry of consequences? can I not assemble a petition on my Facebook page and then have it protected under the 1st amendment? can Facebook take down a post that is religious of politically

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