Tom Moffatt 'karmic' Fort McMurray tweet shows employment law favours company reputation over free speech

Anything you say online that reflects poorly on your company can lead to your suspension or termination. But a Calgary legal expert who specializes in internet shaming is questioning if it’s time to update the law.

U Calgary legal expert Emily Laidlaw says law needs to change

A U of C law professor says it's 'concerning' that companies can reach into 'every aspect of your life' because of how you act outside of the workplace. (Richard Drew/The Associated Press)

We've all heard it — be careful what you post on social media.

Just ask Tom Moffatt, the bureaucrat and former NDP candidate in Taber who was suspended from work after calling the Fort McMurray disaster "karmic."

Tom Moffatt has been suspended from his job with the Town of Taber over a tweet that was widely condemned as insensitive to the victims of the Fort McMurray fire. (LinkedIn/Twitter)

A similar tweet, which has since been deleted, prompted a Vancouver company to suspend its employee Blake Siefken without pay.

"The money that would have gone to his salary will instead be donated to the Red Cross relief efforts in Fort McMurray," wrote The Electric Playground in a Facebook post.

Blake Siefken, of Vancouver, has since deleted this tweet and apologized for making the comment. (Screenshot/@BlakeSiefken)

According to a University of Calgary law professor who specializes in internet shaming, this is how these situations usually play out.

Emily Laidlaw said employers have the legal right to suspend, even fire, employees who blunder on social media — but thinks the law needs to be revisited.

"I feel uncomfortable defending these individuals in this case because what they said was just so terrible, but the problem is that people say stupid things all the time and people vent about work all the time," Laidlaw told the Calgary Eyeopener on Friday.

"That's part of how we interact and social media is now how people interact."

She said "it's concerning" that companies can now reach into "every aspect of your life" and that the law needs to offer more protection to individuals' freedom of speech.

Law favours employers

Employment law was written before Twitter and Facebook, said Laidlaw, which means it's not designed with social media in mind.

"In a lot of the cases that have gone to tribunal, individuals have said, 'I didn't think this had anything to do with work. This is how I interact and talk with my friends' ... But the fact is it's permanent, it's out there, so its impact is greater." 

Aside from a handful of cases where controversial posts appeared in small, closed Facebook groups, Laidlaw said tribunals overwhelmingly rule in favour of employers — especially when businesses have their own social media policies.

"And if they're really well crafted… Any sort of social media used that reflects poorly on the company can lead to [the employee's] termination."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener


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