Employers, Schools, Social Media, and You – An Update

Peep - the all seeing spyIt has been about a year and a half since this blog first discussed (link here) how some employers and public schools were forcing employees and students to allow unrestricted access to their private social media accounts. We also pointed out the risks associated with those actions. At the time, there had not yet been a lot of discussion about this online, particularly when the actions were undertaken by schools. But since then, people have recognized that this was happening, and fortunately, many states now have laws to prevent this abuse of privacy. Also, over the last month or so, I learned another important piece of information that would help at least those in Illinois who end up dealing with a public school system that violates a student's rights. So with all this new information, I wanted to update everyone on the topic.

Addressing a student's civil rights

First and most importantly, I received confirmation of what I had suspected – at least in Illinois, public schools cannot simply call in a student without their parent's knowledge to undergo sensitve questioning particularly when it involves anything related to sex. This is true whether the public school official is the same or opposite sex of the student. Should this happen to someone for whom you are responsible, you can try to talk to the school officials. But if you read the initial article about our own experience with this type of situation, you would know that this does not always work. Some officials choose to enter into a denial and attack mode and refuse to address their abuse of a student's rights. So if that happens and you are looking for resolution of the matter, I finally learned the agency to talk to is the Illinois Department of Human Rights. If you follow that link, there is more information about what actions are prohibited in education and how you can file a complaint. On the flip side, if you are a public school official or manager/supervisor, it is imperative that your staff receives training in these laws. Typically it seems teachers are very aware and respective of any requirements involving a student, but public school officials need to make sure this training also extends to administrative staff.

Another point to remember as a public school administrator is that once you make the decision to force a student to give access to social media accounts, you can potentially gain knowledge of sensitive information that, depending on how it is handled, could again lead to a violation of the student's civil rights or other types of liability. Because of the risks involved and because forcing access to a student's social media accounts can be viewed as a violation of a student's constitutional rights, states have been enacting legislation to protect these rights. All public school officials need to be aware of their own state's laws related to this matter and discuss their policies and procedures with their own attorneys.

Legislation passed to restrict social media access

Even more prevalent have been actions by employers to gain access to an employee's account. In response to this, in 2012, six states passed legislation to regulate an employer's access to an employee's social media accounts: Maryland, California, Illinois, Michigan, Delaware, and New Jersey. Of those, California, Delaware, Michigan, and New Jersey included legislation that also regulated access to social media accounts of students. That year a total of 14 states introduced legislation to address this issue.

And in 2013, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, ten states, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Washington, passed either new or additional legislation to regulate an employer's access to their employees' social media accounts. Of those, Arkansas, Illinois, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, included legislation to regulate access to social media accounts of students. Another 24 states introduced legislation to address an employer's and. in some cases, school's access to social media accounts.

If you are interested in checking out each specific article of legislation, the National Conference of State Legislatures has a comprehensive write up here: 


Employer restrictions on the use of social media

Over the years, regulating social media at work through the use of a policy has become more complicated. What employers have discovered is that these regulations need to navigate and take into consideration existing laws and employee rights. That seems obvious, but the reality is that many did not. A good example of what to take into consideration in your policy is found in A Legal Guide To The Use Of SOCIAL MEDIA IN THE WORKPLACE, a document written by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development and Gray Plant Mooty. This comprehensive guidance covers everything from use of social media during work to its use outside of work and includes discussion about ownership of accounts and copyright issues. While it is written for Minnesota-based employers, it is still a great example of what a good policy should cover and consider.

If you are looking for more of an international perspective, the American Bar Association has a good summary here: Social Media in the Workplace: Employer Protections versus Employee Privacy.

Finally, I've noticed lately some agencies considering policies that would prevent employees from indicating their employer on their own social media accounts. However, before an employer imposes such a restriction they should consult with their attorney and read the decisions published by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In one of their memos, the NLRB suggests that such a restriction might be unlawful. Here is a link to the site where the NLRB has a few more links to their decisions related to this topic: Acting General Counsel issues second social media report.

Overall, whether you are an employer, employee, school administrator, or student, it is important to understand social media is not something to be taken lightly, and the regulation and handling of its use is something that needs to be done with a clear understanding of the law. This can be difficult at times because this involves applying existing laws and rights and human behavior to an ever-changing technology. To ensure a successful and lawful social media policy, each agency should consult regularly with their attorney about their policies, and employees and students need to understand their own rights and responsibilities.


Note: This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to be offered as a legal opinion or decision.




Infographic of the Month – May 2013

Yesterday a colleague at work and I were discussing the feasibility of creating infographics to use as exhibits at public meetings for projects. We didn't necessarily think they should be used in place of what is already done, but instead used to enhance understanding of the project. But we could not think of any examples where we had seen public agencies using infographics in this manner. I'm going to reach out to a few people I know in the industry to see if they are aware of anyone using infographics at public meetings for projects, and if any of you out there are familiar with an example, we'd love to hear about it.

In the meantime, I thought I'd share an infographic with you that I received in the email yesterday from EDR. It focuses on the topic of vapor intrusion. You can find out more about that topic on the EPA Vapor Intrusion page. And if you want to embed this infographic on your own page to help educate citizens in your own community you can grab the embed code on the Vapor Intrusion Infographic page.

What Homeowners Need to Know About Vapor Intrusion – An infographic by the team at EDR



Engineering Infographics

Infographics are large sized, graphic-filled images used to convey sometimes complex ideas or information. Over the last year or so they seem to have risen in popularity and have been produced and shared by a wide variety of industries. So it was only a matter of time before we started finding engineering-related infographics. The one below was created by bestonlineengineeringdegree.com and presents several engineering achievements:

How Did They Do That?
Source: Best Online Engineering Degree

Here's a nice one from the University of Singapore that simply shows the answer to a common question from students:


If you want to try to make your own infographic, there are sites listed at the end of this post to get you started. You can try making an infographic to showcase your product, inform citizens about a project or new ordinance, or just convey some important information or facts to the public. If you make one, we'd love to see it – send it in and we'll share it on our blog.







Establishing Professional Goals

Happy New Year 2013With the dawning of a new year I see so many people talking about their resolutions and goals for 2013. Annual goal setting is not really something I've dedicated much time to in the past. Instead, I always seemed to follow a rolling, unwritten list of goals that are separate from the ones I have at work. But this year I felt more compelled to put down in writing a set of professional goals for the year and relate them to a mission statement. Here's why I finally took this step:

  1. Helps me stay organized -over the last month or so I made a few commitments to participate in certain events or activities so this helps me organize my timeline. 
  2. Helps me stay focused and track my progress – last year I created some goals for my work in MOSES and have found it to be a great help in guiding and assessing my progress there. We also create goals at work to ensure what we do each day helps support the overall goals and strategy set by the city council. So I figured it might be a good idea to extend this approach to other areas of my life.
  3. Helps me justify what I spend time on – the practice of establishing goals and tying them to an overall professional mission helps ensure the things I choose to spend time on outside of work will help me be successful in what I actually want to achieve.

Here are the general goals. They are in addition to the goals I have at work. I have not included in this post the specific tasks I established for each. Perhaps that is something I will do at the end of the year when I assess the progress I made.

Annual Professional Goals for 2013

Mission: Promote and empower others in the use of online technologies within the public works and government industries and provide information and services to the public for the purpose of advancing the understanding of community, government, and public works.

Goal 1
Advance the understanding and use of online communication in the public works industry

Goal 2
Participate in industry organizations to advance understanding of public works and education within the public works profession

Goal 3
Develop and deliver industry education online and in-person

Goal 4
Participate in and provide value to virtual world communities such as MOSES, Second Life, and OpenSim

Of course, I also have personal goals related to family and my research in genealogy. But for those, I still don't see a need to set them down in writing. And I wonder how easy it would be to set specific tasks since family and genealogy can be so unpredictable and somewhat out of my control. I am going to see how the year goes using this set of professional goals, and depending how it works out, maybe next year I can at least consider trying it out in those other areas of my life.

If any of you create professional or personal goals, I would be interested in hearing how you establish, document, and track them. 



Good FOIA Gone Bad

When I saw the map of gun owners printed online by a publication owned by The Gannett Company and the public reaction, I thought of my last supervisor. He was a wise man with whom I could discuss any idea without fear of ridicule or repercussion. When the ideas were good, he would fully support their implementation. When the ideas were bad, he would not hesitate to share why he thought so in a way that was not negative or discouraging. And in the end, I found his judgement in almost everything to be spot on. While we never discussed publishing the names and addresses of gun owners, we did talk about doing this for ordinance violators – people who had run down homes, etc. And this was one of those ideas he thought would be bad. He just thought it was going a little too far; people would not tolerate seeing their name and address publicly displayed for something like an ordinance violation. It's one of those examples where you shouldn't do something just because you can. Based on public reaction to the gun map, it appears he made a good call.

Of course, I see this as fallout from the FOIA laws, and it shouldn't surprise anyone that newspapers were the primary lobbyists for those laws. People are quick to defend FOIA because of the need for open and transparent government, and I agree we do need FOIA for those agencies that are not open and transparent. (Although when you do have an open and transparent government, FOIA actually slows down the process and causes more problems than it helps, but that is another story.) The reason FOIA is part of this problem is it does provide for full disclosure of all government information pursuant to the law yet has little language indicating what can be done with that information. And government has a lot of data on citizens, more so than people probably realize. So the map becomes the example of how this can go so very wrong and demonstrates the need to change FOIA laws so people act responsibly with the information they receive. Particularly when it involves personal information about citizens.

Some of the fallout from this has led to someone posting personal information easily found on the Internet about those involved with the printing of the map. The information can be found in an article, Sauce for the goose or, home address and phone number of Journal-News publisher. Of course, much of the information has since been removed by these jounalists because I imagine they do not want public scrutiny of themselves.

While turning the tables on people might help them better understand the repercussions of their actions, it doesn't solve the problem that FOIA laws provide the gateway to personal information with few to no limits on its use. Fortunately a New York State Senator, Greg Ball, has decided to take action. According to a press release on the New York Senate site, he "multi-sponsored Assembly bill 820, legislation which would prohibit the public disclosure of information in an application for a pistol license with exceptions for prosecutors and police conducting an active investigation." While this might help gun owners in that state, I hope that at some point, legislators everywhere realize this could occur with any personal information the government stores. And legislators should discuss and decide if it is better to change laws to restrict the release of personal information regardless of the purpose for which it was collected or to regulate the use of that information.