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Michigan Teacher’s Aide Fired When She Refused to Share Her Facebook Password


Remember when we told you that Facebook might consider suing employers who force potential hires to give up their account information so they can log in and snoop around? But that they said they weren’t currently pursuing any such lawsuits? Well, they might have one. While this doesn’t concern a potential employee but someone who had already been an employee, a Michigan teacher’s aide was fired because her supervisor “assumed the worst” when she refused to give up her Facebook login information. So, is that fair? We’ll provide more context and let you decide.

One part of Facebook’s threat to sue employers that made it merely a threat was that the stories about people being forced to hand over their login information had not happened all that recently, more like two or three years ago (which is practically a decade in “internet years”). However, this story happened just under a year ago, so they might have a potential target on their hands — unless schools are exempt. Here is what happened:

Kimberly Hester was employed directly by Less Cass Intermediate School District as an aide to a local elementary school. Last year, off work hours, she posted a picture of a co-worker’s pants around her ankles with the caption “Thinking of you” — meant to be funny — to her Facebook page.

The picture was posted back in April 2011, and Hester insists that it contained no pornography and was “very mild.” A parent of a child at the school, who was friends with Hester on Facebook, saw the picture and told the school. We don’t know what the parent said, but it sounds like the profile was private, and the school officials did not have access to the picture to take a look for themselves. The school’s superintendent asked Hester three times for access to her Facebook profile, and she refused, saying she didn’t think it was appropriate for them to ask.

So, they just assumed it was child porn or something terribly depraved, and they suspended her following a period of paid administrative leave. They sent her a letter saying the following, which Hester has kept for legal proceedings:

“…in the absence of you voluntarily granting Lewis Cass ISD administration access to you[r] Facebook page, we will assume the worst and act accordingly.”

The school maintains that they broke no laws in firing Hester since there are no such state or federal laws on the books concerning online privacy for them to break. As we know, there are some U.S. Senators in Washington, D.C. looking into changing that, even if a possible amendment failed in the House. Hester maintains that her private life is private, and the school had no right to pry into what she does when she’s not working for them.

The difference between this and other stories is that the person who was asked to share their information was a teacher’s aide, and the employer is not a private company but a public school. Suppose Facebook did target merely an “employer” who asked for private information — would it still apply to the education system, whether the school is public or private, because the employer is in the business of educating minor children? Or would the school still be at risk for such a lawsuit from Facebook since the profile was still set to private, and they were trying to look where they had no business looking? This is all hypothetical, since Facebook has not made any statements regarding this particular story. It’s also a different situation than someone in the vulnerable position of being interviewed for a job being asked by the employer, who is at their mercy; in this case, Hester already had the job.

Right now, Hester is pursuing her own legal complaint against the school. Arbitration begins in May.

(South Bend Tribune via Mashable)

Previously in Facebook

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  • http://www.facebook.com/1shewolf JoAnna Luffman

    This is where things get sticky. Admittedly, someone into kiddie porn isn’t likely to advertise on FB, and if they did, it’s likely not going to be the same page they befriend parents on. But I would want my school to fire a teacher if they were doing illegal activities (for example, prostitution is illegal in my area, no matter what side of the transaction the person is on). But a image of teachers jackassing around shouldn’t be a firable offense. Stupid, ill-advised and unprofessional, yes. Harmful to kids, no.

    I think it’s going to boil down to “were laws/rules of conduct broken, if so, investigate; if not, ignore.”.

  • http://www.glassofwin.com/blog/ Rachael

    While I am on Hester’s part of this situation – legally and morally – I think it was silly of her to have added a parent in the first place. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/quellman Michael Quell

    The school “assumed the worst?”  And the appropriate response is just to fire them?  If they suspect the employer is spreading child pornography, by not going to the police, aren’t they aiding and abetting?  If they suspect they’re sneaking around with a married co-worker after work, isn’t that a) their own business, b) a non-fireable offense, and c) an issue to be settled privately?  What exactly is the ‘worst’ that was assumed?  It should have led to not just firing, but reporting to the authorities; ifthe case was unfounded, they’d be liable in a countersuit, right?  *dusts off his TV Law degree*

    It sounds like from this article they fired the person and left it at that; if they truly suspect something criminal and involving minors, I can’t see how the school isn’t liable if they don’t alert the authorities and let an official investigation decide.

  • http://twitter.com/acidragdoll Bel

     So where exactly does it get sticky, given that the reported photo contains nothing even resembling illegal activity, and there is therefore no reason to assume anything illegal was going on at all?

  • Arakiba

    They’ll be asking to read our diaries next.

  • Michael Derry

    Would the 4th and 5th amendments apply in this case? [Unreasonable search; self-incrimination]

    Also, the Terms of Service of Facebook (and most password protected sites) prohibit the sharing of passwords. As a legally binding contract, it seems pretty dubious for an employer to force you to break a contract with another entity.

    The school should have asked for proof from whomever reported the incident in the first place.

  • http://www.facebook.com/quellman Michael Quell

    For most things like this, don’t “Our Accounts” legally still ‘belong’ to the company in the TOS?  They have the right to deny us access at any time.  It’s not a perfect example, but that’s the ‘legal, TOS’ reason why I can’t sell my World of Warcraft account to a friend; it’s not technically mine to sell?  Of course, it’s really beacuse they don’t want us to profit from their servers, the whole credit card/billing issue thing because a nightmare, sensitive info gets passed, and things of that nature that are best to just avoid.

    I could be wrong.  But I thought that’s how it worked?

    Edit: The point to that being, they want me to provide access to something that isn’t mine anyway. They want “my” Facebook account. It isn’t mine to give away. The content inside isn’t mine to give away. I’m legally commiting piracy/trademark violations/something by giving that password.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Gorillazfan Emily Hill

    This is stupid she has every right to refuse to hand over her password when i was a kid I gave my password for neopets to someone and lost alot of expensive stuff I had saved up for while its not real cash it shows what can happen when your password gets into the wrong hands heck if these people are bad enough they could put stuff that incriminates her

  • Michael Derry

     Thanks for clarifying your point.

    Yes, that’s a fair explanation for how a ToS agreement generally works. Either way, it seems like a strong enough legal reason to deny such a request.

  • Terence Ng

    Agreed. And how is it unprofessional if they did it off hours? People party, drink, have sex, swear, watch movies, and tell jokes in their personal lives that have nothing to do with their professional lives.

  • Terence Ng

    You know, I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and my thoughts keep going back to “I’ll give you my password, if you give me yours.” It shouldn’t be too hard to find anything near the slightest definition of “incriminating”. I mean, an employee has a right to know who they’re working for, right?

  • http://sdhardie.tumblr.com Sheila

    I can see firing a teacher who is CONVICTED of or ARRESTED for prostitution, but not one that is simply “suspected of”. That’s ridiculous.

  • http://sdhardie.tumblr.com Sheila

    They are bullying her to send a message to their other employees. “If you don’t let us trample your rights, this will happen to you.” Good for her for standing up for her rights. I hope she sues the school district and wins.

  • Anonymous

    This is giving me awful flashbacks of last year where a teacher was fired because she published erotic novels under a pen name and angry parents rallied.
    I…I don’t even.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=44404104 Amorae Daylett

    Although I agree that Facebook passwords should be confidential and never forcibly shared with an employer, I understand how this situation is a bit different. I work for a school district and our Employee Standards of Conduct makes it very clear that because of our unique position in public education, we can be fired for things done in our “personal” lives. We are required to be examples in and out of the school. It’s not very fair but it happens. That’s why it’s important to not share your facebook profile with any parents or community members of your school in case someone decides to find issue with something (even something innocent and stupid) and bring it to your employer.

  • Anonymous

    I agree that teachers shouldn’t add the parents of their pupils (or the pupils themselves!) on Facebook – that’s never going to work out well. So yes, that was a mistake by the teacher in this case. But I still don’t think anything she did remotely justifies the school firing her (for a private picture they hadn’t seen!). In fact, I strongly feel that employees in this situation ought to be legally protected; if this dismissal wasn’t illegal, it *should* be.