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Assuming Courts will Agree that Your Social Media Posts are Jokes or Satire is Risky

Does an employee’s adult-themed posts – she called them jokes –  on a social media site impact her claims of unwanted sexual harassment in the workplace?  Does a school have the right to discipline a student in a professional program for her posts – which she called satire?

In the first case, a judge ruled that adult themed posts on a social media page were relevant to her sexual harassment claim, but were not yet fatal to her case at the summary judgment stage.This case began with police officer Christina Targonski and her workplace, the City of Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  Targonski argued that there were rumors being spread about her sexual preferences and her willingness to engage in certain sexual conduct outside the office.  Targonski complained about the behavior to her superiors.  She then claims she was discriminated against and retaliated against by the City. During the course of her litigation, it was revealed that Targonski posted on her Facebook account that she was interested in “Naked Twister” and other adult themed conduct. Her posts were occurring at the time she claims the rumors created a hostile work environment.

When Targonski sued the City for sexual harassment, the City sought summary judgment (essentially an early dismissal) of the case arguing that Targonski’s social media posts showed that the conduct was not unwelcome and offensive to her.  The Court found the posts curious, but noted that Targonski called the posts “jokes” between friends.  The Court then found, at the early stage of the case, that Targonski – if she was to be believed – could proceed with her case.  Targonski v. City of Oak Ridge, Case No. 3:11-CV-269 (E.Dist. of Tenn., July 18, 2012)

In the second case, a mortuary student at the University of Minnesota sued to appeal discipline imposed against her for posts on Facebook.  Tatro v. University of Minnesota, 816 N.W.2d 509 (Mn. 2012).  In this case, the Supreme Court of Minnesota was asked to evaluate whether discipline imposed against Tatro by the school constituted a violation of her right to free speech under the First Amendment to the Constitution.

In this case, Tatro was a mortuary student at a program designed to train morticians and funeral directors.  Tatro posted several comments on Facebook about stabbing someone with a needle.  The school found out about the posts and ultimately that Tatro had violated the schools academic program rules.  Tatro was given a failing grade in one course and was placed on probation for the remainder of her college career, as well as additional sanctions.

Tatro eventually sued arguing that the discipline violated her right of free speech. Tatro also argued that the posts were merely satire.   The Minnesota Supreme Court, in a case of first impression, rejected her claims finding that Tatro had agreed to certain Mortuary Science Program Rules which were more restrictive than normal student speech restrictions.  Ultimately, they upheld the sanctions against Tatro.

Today’s takeaway?  Watch what you post on Social Media pages.  Whether or not they are jokes, they can come back years later to haunt you.