You know that nostalgia that brings talk show hosts to often celebrate certain milestones by bringing back a guest from their inaugural show? That’s sort of how I feel today by bringing back the subject of my very first social media blog post back on August 3, 2010 – Shirley Sherrod.
You may remember the plight of Shirley Sherrod last summer, when she was forced to resign after a blogger posted limited excerpts of a speech she had previously given to the NAACP. Those excerpts depicted her as a racist, some agued, although once the full video was reviewed, it became clear, Sherrod argued, that what she had been describing to the NAACP was, in fact, reflective instead of an anti-racist stance and an example of one who moved beyond race when it came to helping someone in need.
Welcome back Ms. Sherrod. The former Georgia Director of Rural Development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture has just filed a defamation lawsuit against that blogger (conservative writer, Andrew Breitbart) in the Superior Court for the District of Columbia. Sherrod claims that, by posting an alleged doctored video, Breitbart acted with intentional malice and got her fired from her job last summer. The news wires have Sherrod stating that her lawsuit is not about politics or race, and not even about free press, but the speed with which “distorted truth” can damage one’s name and reputation in today’s social media environment.
For his part, Breitbart has denied Sherrod’s allegations, and vows to vigorously defend what he appears to claim is a baseless and politically-motivated attack on his right to free speech. Like other pending cases we have noted, we will continue to update Ms. Sherrod’s lawsuit as developments occur.
Employer Take Away: What should you as an employer take away from this development? Shirley Sherrod is back on center stage with her blog-based lawsuit in the nation’s capital. The manner in which the court addresses unique aspects of this case specific to social media (for example, the mass audience and speed of publication attendant to social media) will be interesting to watch, though Sherrod’s allegations at a minimum re-emphasize that social media is simply another forum out of which traditional claims such as defamation can arise. Your company should understand, and ensure that employees understand, that the law and the company’s policies apply equally to conduct and statements through social media.
In addition, we all know that employees are making statements of all kinds on blogs and social networking sites. They often do so with the mindset that there is a certain informality associated with social media posts, more so than there might be in a more formal letter or memorandum they would otherwise pen. You should make sure your policies and employee training make clear the obligations one has when communicating through social media, so that your company can avoid potential exposure to a defamation lawsuit brought by a third party.