Should Expressing Extremist Views on Social Media Be Grounds for Termination?
Should social media posts be banned if they offend a vast majority of people?
Most of us probably believe the answer is no. We should all be allowed freedom of expression. After all, free speech is a fundamental right. Besides, who’s to determine what’s acceptable versus objectionable?
However, let’s also agree that social media posts widely considered offensive should be accompanied by consequences.
This too becomes problematic.
Since social media has usurped such a powerful influence over most of our lives, firings and forced resignations have taken a toll among people we usually think of as beyond reproach. Because of inflammatory postings on social media outlets, an unknown number of emergency personnel recently — including firefighters, police officers, nurses, emergency medical technicians, and many others — have been identified on public platforms including Facebook and Twitter and been called out for their allegedly insensitive comments on race, sex, politics, and other controversial topics.
For instance, several EMTs have recently been fired for posting inappropriate comments on social media, even though evidence reveals that in most cases the comments weren’t posted while at work. Perhaps EMTs are more susceptible to the extremes of human carnage than the rest of us, and buffers of common sense become tested and weakened. This profession, in particular, does seem to have been hit with a disproportionate number of high-profile controversies. The crisis is serious enough for one EMT advocacy group to have issued a comprehensive social media policy guide “to set expectations for appropriate social media use on duty and off the job.” Emphasis on — “off the job.” Similar policy directives currently exist for most civil servants, including police officers, firefighters, and others engaged in positions of public trust. [READ MORE HERE]
The types of social media infractions serious enough to warrant immediate termination have varied widely, from racial slurs to sexually-suggestive comments — you know, pretty much all the dumpster fire residue one sees every day while scrolling on Twitter or Facebook. Indeed, social media isn’t a giant lens so as much as a vast mirror, showing us who were are, collectively speaking. While many posts do cross fuzzy lines of decorum and common decency, reactions are also often divided. Some get offended ways too easily. Others are entertained and amused by outrageous posts. “Going too far” is non-partisan. It cuts across politics, race, gender, geography, education level, and profession. Virtually all types of people — from athletes to actors and professors to preachers and teachers to truck drivers, conservatives and liberals — have been ensnared by the social media net. Who among us hasn’t posted things we regret and wish we could go back and delete? And, who among us hasn’t also thought to ourselves — wow, that post is really out of line?
That said, most of us likely oppose overt racists and other maladjusted deviants serving in positions of authority. We don’t want people with archaic views about race, gender, and sexual orientation making life and death decisions, especially if they’re left unsupervised. We must presume those hidden biases could impact the way others are treated. This can’t be allowed to happen and society must try to inoculate ourselves from those with detestable opinions which could end up costing innocent lives. Hence, social media posts have become one method to identify and presumably filter out those who don’t belong in such positions.
Problem is, a very large number of people in this country are racists. They’re often our neighbors, co-workers, and even family members. I won’t guess on an estimate, but the number of racists is certainly in the millions, perhaps even tens of millions. Moreover, it’s inevitable that many racists work in law enforcement, health care, and our judicial system — in positions where their prejudicial biases could (and often does) severely impact the lives of others, much to their detriment. History proves this. Even recent history.
So, where should we draw lines? Furthermore, to what extent should social media be used as a filter in a defense against hiring or keeping these types of workers?
Certainly, among the millions of racists, misogynists, perverts, and other social deviants, many do admirable work. So far as anyone knows, detestable personal views don’t necessarily impact how someone performs on the job. There’s also something to be said for the fundamental right to personal privacy. Objectionable as racism, misogyny, and perversion might be to most, holding extremist views aren’t against the law.
There’s also some question about a supposed statute of limitations and whether or not it should apply. We’ve seen alarming examples of college (and some pro) athletes being called out and even penalized for stupid posts they made as teenagers. Should a 22-year-old football player suffer consequences for an insensitive post he made as a 15-year-old?
Then, what about social media posts made while being drunk, or high on intoxicants, suffering the side effects of legal medication, or perhaps in some extreme state of emotional despair? Do those infractions count?
Furthermore, many people do change their opinions. Sometimes, those with deplorable views, over time and based on experiences and personal encounters with others, do come to accept a much broader and more tolerant view towards those they once held in contempt. So, it seems wrong to punish someone based solely on old Twitter and Facebook posts.
What constitutes proper grounds for termination when activities deemed objectionable do not impact job performance. Should a racist be allowed to teach high school mathematics? Should someone who repeatedly threatens others online be allowed to serve in the military? Should we allow someone sexually promiscuous to be a social worker? Perhaps there’s a connection between personal and professional life. Then, maybe there isn’t. But if we’re going to start weeding out prospective employees based on opinions they express on social media, there might be a lot of workers who suddenly find themselves unemployed.
These questions will only become more frequent over time, as we all — willingly or unknowingly — build an online archive of personal thoughts and opinions within the giant file cabinet of social media. We all do this one keystroke or expletive at a time. Young people who post self-compromising selfies and make other stupid judgments will increasingly become the victims of future scrutiny and might even be subject to unforeseeable social norms and practices.
Have we already gone too far? Comedians can’t perform certain types of jokes anymore without a public backlash. Actors have apologized for using so-called insensitive language on social media. Corporations have scrapped advertising campaigns and changed practices based on the public reaction on Twitter. While some of these things may be good, let’s also agree social media can take on what amounts to a lynch-mob mentality.
After pondering free speech and discerning how it applies to social media, admittedly, I’m now left with more questions than answers.