The First Amendment and Social Media in Agribusiness

by Bryan Bjerke
October 27, 2016

There’s been renewed discussion and debate about the right to free expression as it pertains to the National Anthem, the American flag and the right of citizens to stand, kneel, link arms or put your hand over your heart. In a free, democratic society, that sort of topic will always get plenty of traffic, both in traditional media and social media. The arguments, both pro and con, are a shining example of the freedoms we enjoy. But issues like this one, regarding freedom of speech and expression, have other avenues of concern when it comes to social media.

I always carry a copy of the Constitution with me, and the First Amendment is pretty clear on the subject:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Those simple, powerful words were written long before the advent of mobile technology and social media. But the reason those words are still powerful is that they still are relevant to our digital universe.

It is important that agri-marketers, their employees and their clients understand both the broad implications of the First Amendment and the limitations that social media interaction in the private workplace can place on that right. Remember that it is specific about the government’s limitations on freedom of speech and free expression. It says nothing about private employers.

Jon Hyman is an attorney who blogs at Workforce.com/PracticalEmployer. Introducing a blog on the subject in WorkForce Magazine, he wrote:

“One of the biggest misconceptions that employees hold is that the First Amendment grants them free speech rights in a private workplace.

Quite the contrary, the First Amendment right to free speech grants private-sector employees zero constitutional rights or protections.”

That can create significant tension between employer and employee when it comes to matters of workplace social media interaction and communication. That is especially true if there has not been a frank discussion and written social media policies that include employee accounts. It should begin with a reminder that there are limits to free speech. For example, speech that incites hatred or violence or advocates for what the Supreme Court has ruled illegal activity is prohibited speech.

Responsible employers and employees can enjoy the free exchange of ideas that social media and the Internet provide. It’s always helpful to remind employees and clients that your company will handle all official social media monitoring and responses. Regarding personal social media accounts, make sure they know they’re responsible for the content they create and distribute, no matter where it is shared. And all parties must remember that social media doesn’t take weekends off…or nights…or holidays. There are always people watching and searching for information. Many of those people are more than willing to share your comments and posts and speculate about what happened or what is going on now.

We are all busy these days creating content that focuses on business and sales goals by telling stories about how products and services affect customers. Employees and customers are valuable brand ambassadors for business through social engagement and community building. Their created content, through major social media channels, is increasingly sought and encouraged. That input most often results in increased visibility and buzz about products and services. It can also stimulate criticism that can take the form of positive feedback in the best case, and negative, personal or corporate attacks in the worst case.

Political advocacy and other hot-button issues have found their way into our personal lives through social media, especially in an election season. When those same posts and tweets, likes and dislikes show up as a reflection of a business or a service, we enter into an entirely different realm when it comes to the right of expression and freedom of speech. Effective marketers have to be prepared and aware: Prepared for the reaction and implications, and aware of the rights and responsibilities.

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