Facebook Five Fight For Right To Air Work Grievances Online

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Canberra, Australia—In a case which questions the function of social networking sites, several New South Wales state prison guards have been accused of misconduct after posting complaints about their boss on the popular site Facebook.The guards, who are being supported by their union, the Public Service Association (PSA), had started a private Facebook group so that they could discuss their superiors’ plans to privatize the Sydney prison, which is currently operated by the government. The group was closed to outsiders, and it’s uncertain how prison authorities gained access, but a senior prison official sent a letter to the guards telling them that they might face disciplinary action, including dismissal.

In the letter, the guards – two women and three men – were accused of making “unauthorized public comment” and “comment to the media without permission,” in addition to making offensive statements about Corrective Services Commissioner Ron Woodham and other prison officials.

At issue here is if the posted remarks can be equated with employees letting off steam in private, or whether the Internet site can be considered an extension of the workplace, so that regulations regarding the workplace would also apply to a Facebook group if it is comprised of coworkers. Speaking for the guards, PSA official Stewart Little said that the comments were not meant to be seen by anyone but one another, and that they were akin to “people getting together in a pub and having a beer and bagging the boss.”

According to documents filed by the guards, the union is also requesting that the guards’ employment agreements be changed to reflect protection against disciplinary action “in respect to out-of-work conduct intended to be private.”

Yet specialists in Internet law, including Queensland State University of Technology professor Peter Black, say that because a record can be kept of postings, emails and other exchanges made in the online environment, and because that record can be searchable, there is necessarily a distinction between cyber comments and spoken ones. A conversation that takes on Facebook or other social media sites, say other experts, that is primarily conducted among colleagues and which concerns the workplace, can be legally considered work-related.

Media in Australia have dubbed the guards the “Facebook Five.” The hearing will begin on Wednesday and continue next week.

The comments made by the Facebook Five have since been taken off the Internet site, says Little. Prison officials have declined to make a statement about the case.

 

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