Anonymous Comment Costs School Employee His Job

    November 19, 2009

Most of us have blogs, right? How do you react to anonymous vulgar comments? Hit SPAM, right? Yeah, me too. And so did the Director of Social Media for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Kurt Greenbaum. The first time. But when the anonymous commenter again posted the single-word vulgarity, Greenbaum tracked his IP address—to a school.

Probably thinking he was reporting a misbehaving student, Greenbaum contacted the school and explained the situation. Six hours later, the school called back: they’d found the commenter—an employee. After they confronted him, the employee resigned.

Most of us probably have an intrinsic notion that the anonymous commenter and Greenbaum Google+Reader”>both acted inappropriately (although there was no way for Greenbaum to know he was turning in an employee and not a student)—but perhaps the more important question is whether they were acting legally.

Greenbaum, a Post-Dispatch employee, should be bound by the paper’s online privacy policy, which states:

We will not share individual user information with third parties unless the user has specifically approved the release of that information.

However, at the beginning of the policy, they stipulate that “Your IP address does not contain personally identifiable information, nor does it identify you personally.” So is that individual user information? Sounds like it’s not.

And the Post-Dispatch’s ToS is an exercise in CYA (they define “submission” to include comments):

  • You automatically waive any claim that any use of such content violates any of your rights, including privacy rights, publicity rights, moral rights or any other right, including the right to approve the way we use such content.
  • You are responsible for the content of all Submissions and acknowledge that third parties may hold you responsible for content related claims including libel, invasion of privacy, misappropriation of likeness and disclosure of confidential information.
  • You shall indemnify, defend and hold us, our parent company and our affiliated entities (including our officers, directors, owners, agents and employees) harmless from all liability and costs incurred by those indemnified in connection with any claim arising out of any breach by you of the above representations and warranties and for any claims related to the content or your Submissions.

And, naturally, the ToS stipulates that using the site to “upload, post, email, transmit or otherwise make available content that is harmful to minors in any way, or that is harassing, harmful, threatening, abusive, vulgar, obscene, defamatory, libelous, hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable” violates the ToS, too.

And how were Anon’s actions illegal? Well, setting aside possible obscenity charges (while legally problematic, “obscenity” is not protected under the First Amendment), the school probably also has policies—policies that dictate the use of school resources. Most likely, this comment was made on school time, from a school computer, using the school’s Internet connection. Somehow, I can’t imagine there’s a provision in the policy that allows for use of school resources for posting vulgar comments online. By violating these policies, the employee could face discipline or even termination.

What do you think? Would these policies hold up in court?