Editorial: Here's a 'like' for free speech

A view of and Apple iPhone displaying the A view of and Apple iPhone displaying the Facebook app's splash screen in front of the login page in Washington, DC. (May 10, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Here's how the bureaucracy finally caught up with the "virtual water cooler."

The National Labor Relations Board -- around since the days when neatly dressed workers met at the water cooler to gossip -- has never been known as a quick study in dealing with the impact of fast-mutating technology. But now there are signs the agency is adapting.

In a decision last month, a panel of NLRB judges supported the right of workers to discuss office conditions without reprisal on their personal Facebook pages.

The agency determined in so many words that the social media is the new "virtual water cooler" -- and if you use your own Facebook page to kvetch about workplace conditions, that's OK.

Guiding this decision is a long-standing NLRB principle that employees have a right to talk to each other informally about working conditions at the office.

In this case, employees at an upstate social-service agency called Hispanics United of Buffalo used Facebook to vent about a worker who was threatening to tell their boss they were slow in providing their clients with services.

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When one of the employees caught wind of this, she alerted her fellow employees with a message posted from her home computer to her Facebook page:

". . . [a] co-worker feels that we don't help our clients enough . . . I about had it! My fellow co-workers how do u feel?" The ensuing back and forth was frank and angry, and Hispanics United of Buffalo terminated five employees who took part.

Last month's ruling said they were fired unlawfully.

But a note of caution: The NLRB did not give workers free rein to say whatever they want on social media.

In other recent cases it has ruled that they cannot use social media to embarrass or bad-mouth their employers.

An Arizona police reporter frustrated by a lack of crime news was fired for tweets such as: "You stay homicidal, Tucson." The NLRB let his firing stick, saying the company could protect itself from inappropriate tweets. That's another good call.

If technology changes fast, bedrock principles, happily, do not.

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