In his 2013 book, Our Final Invention, documentary filmmaker James Barrat explores the perils and promises of artificial intelligence (AI). The book’s ominous subtitle, Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, echoes similar dire sentiments regarding the ultimate consequences of mankind’s quest for fully functioning AI, including from celebrated theorists such as Stephen Hawking (“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race”) and Claude Shannon (“I visualize a time when we will be to robots what dogs are to humans.”).
Does one person’s Twitter account a trade secret make? A newspaper in Virginia apparently thinks so. This past week, the owner of The Roanoke Times sued former Virgina Tech sports reporter Andy Bitter under the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act, among other things, because he refused to give up the login information for a Twitter account.
Under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), all employees have a right to engage in protected concerted activity, even if they are not unionized. Such activities include those performed for the mutual aid or protection of all employees, such as discussing the terms and conditions of employment. An employer is prohibited by the Act from interfering with, restraining or coercing employees from exercising their Section 7 rights. In the past decade, there have been a number of important cases decided by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the agency that protects the rights of employees to join together and improve wage and working conditions, that impact social media policies. In fact, many of the decisions have struck down social media policies as unenforceable under the NLRA. If any provision in a social media policy is vague or overbroad and can be read as restricting activities protected by Section 7, that provision will likely be found unlawful and unenforceable by the NLRB.
Freelance writers are as integral to online content generation as migrant workers are to the harvesting of seasonal crops (and in many cases, about as poorly protected). And since content generation is always in season—and given that so many online platforms either use freelancers to generate content or rely in some manner on said content—employers would do well to take note when a large metropolitan area that serves as home for countless freelancers enacts new protections for the group as a whole. New York City did just that with the Freelance Isn’t Free Act, which colleagues Rebecca Carr Rizzo, Kenneth W. Taber and Andrew J. Lauria discussed at length in a May client alert. Now that the law has gone into effect, final rules have been announced which further define what a hiring party can and cannot do in regard to the language of contracts that freelancers are asked to sign. In New York City’s “Freelance Isn’t Free” Act Also Isn’t Waivable, our colleagues explore the law’s final form. While it’s likely New York-area employers are familiar with the law, anyone who hires freelancers based in NYC should take note.
Whether or not your friends and family get a kick out of your misery at work, that online post of yours might tick off your employer. But what rights do employers have to restrain their employees from complaining about them online? Can employers punish employees for posting their grievances online? How do courts differentiate between “protected” and “tantrum” posts? What is the Government’s view on employees’ social media postings? In 2011, Pier Sixty LLC fired Hernan Perez for labeling his supervisor a “nasty M.F.” and using similarly profane language against his supervisor’s family in a Facebook post that ended with a plea to “Vote YES for the UNION.” In a 2016 decision, the Second Circuit enforced the National Labor Research Board’s (NLRB) decision and found that the employee was protected under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) because the post was in relation to a union-related activity.
The future of ride-sharing companies has hung in the balance for more than two years while class actions and labor complaints were pending against industry giants Uber, Lyft and others. The ride-sharing companies have primarily fought with their drivers over the driver’s employment status—a conflict between whether the drivers are employees entitled to benefits or independent contractors responsible for paying for their own expenses such as gas and vehicle maintenance. (See our earlier posts, Uber Is Driving an Unknown Road and Avoiding Uber Trouble via Good Terms of Service.) After a tide of unfavorable court decisions for its competitor Uber, on Tuesday, Lyft agreed to settle a California class-action lawsuit brought in 2013 by its drivers seeking reclassification from independent contractor to full-time employees and the benefits associated with employee status.
Notwithstanding that the people involved are often surprised at their public exposure, it has become somewhat commonplace for individuals to be either caught on video by a smartphone or to have a social media website posting that demonstrates poor judgment go viral. All employers should consider having a social media response plan for just these sorts of incidents, in some cases to protect other employees and in many cases to protect the employer’s brand and reputation. Even then, employers must strike a fine balance in navigating their rights and responsibilities towards all affected by the sudden exposure.
In early November, an administrative law judge of the National Labor Relations Board dismissed a complaint filed against an employer, finding that the employer did not violate the National Labor Relations Act by withdrawing rehire offers from two employees’ based on their Facebook conversation.
The two employees worked for a non-profit corporation’s teen center. Shortly after the employees were issued rehire letters, they had a Facebook conversation regarding their work at the teen center. The conversation included a large amount of profanity as well as statements that the employees would not ask permission to engage in certain activities; would do whatever they wanted with the center’s funds; and would generally “raise hell.”
Another employee saw the conversation and sent screenshots to the director of the teen center. Letters rescinding the rehire offers were sent to the employees, citing concerns that they would not follow directions and could endanger the children at the teen center.
As in many recent cases, the administrative law judge found that the employees were engaged in “concerted activity” when expressing disagreement with management’s running of the teen center. The judge noted that the Facebook conversation included discussion of (1) how the employees were treated, (2) the employer’s failure to respond to certain employee concerns, and (3) the one employee’s demotion.
not every instance of concerted activity is protected. The judge found that the employer could reasonably and lawfully conclude that the employees’
actions were not protected. The judge noted the employer’s arguments (1)
that its funding from the government and donors could be impacted by the comments, and (2) that the safety of youth served by the teen center could be jeopardized.
While not every social media-related firing may be unlawful, employers should still be aware of the NLRB’s crackdown on social media policies.
Last week, in Bland v. Roberts, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit handed a constitutional victory to Facebook and two plaintiffs who lost their jobs after displaying online support for the incumbent’s opponent in a sheriff’s election. Reversing the district court decision, which said that “liking” a Facebook page was not sufficient “expressive speech” to warrant First Amendment protection, the appellate court ruled that the act was “pure speech,” as well as symbolic expression.
On August 29, 2013, Gov. Chris Christie signed New Jersey’s social media privacy law, making New Jersey the twelfth state to enact such laws governing employers. (Various states have enacted similar laws governing institutions of higher education.)
Christie’s signature ends an approximately year and a half long legislative process: the bill was first introduced on May 10, 2012. As discussed in prior posts on this blog (New Jersey Assembly Unanimously Passes Revised Social Media Bill, New Jersey Senate Unanimously Passes Revised Social Media Bill), the bill was conditionally vetoed by Christie in May of 2013, then passed again by the Assembly in May and the Senate in August.
New Jersey should be the last state to enact such a law until the various state legislatures begin their next sessions. But with 24 states having proposed – but not enacted – social media laws in 2013, more can be expected in the future.