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Lawyers warn that even average social media users risking jobs with their tweets

TORONTO -- Manchester United is considering a ban on tweeting after star Wayne Rooney responded to a heckling soccer fan with: "I'll put u asleep within 10 seconds u little girl.''

Rocker Courtney Love had to shell out US$430,000 to settle a defamation suit stemming from her ill-advised tweets.

And sportscaster Damian Goddard found himself out of a job after he tweeted his polarizing thoughts on same-sex marriage.

But those in the public eye aren't the only ones who should watch what they tweet. Lawyers warn it probably won't be long before an unknown Internet user inadvertently becomes a case study in how not to use social media.

Lawyers caution that there are real risks in sharing potentially controversial opinions or statements with the world via Twitter, or even in a private network on Facebook.

But they can't say exactly what kind of statements constitute crossing the line, because Canadian courts haven't weighed in on the issue -- yet.

Toronto employment lawyer Stacey Ball isn't hearing about many claims of wrongful dismissal associated with social media posts gone wrong, but he expects that will change eventually.

"It does happen but you don't see a lot of it, it's sort of a very recent phenomenon,'' says Ball, who is also the author of the industry tome "Canadian Employment Law.''

"But you're going to see more of this.''

Under Canadian law, a non-unionized employee can be fired at any time, for any reason provided they're given adequate notice or pay in lieu. But an oft-cited 1967 Ontario Court of Appeal ruling provides grounds for an employer to terminate without compensation.

"If an employee has been guilty of serious misconduct, habitual neglect of duty, incompetence, or conduct incompatible with his duties, or prejudicial to the employer's business, or if he has been guilty of wilful disobedience to the employer's orders in a matter of substance, the law recognizes the employer's right summarily to dismiss the delinquent employee,'' reads the decision.

Ball says he would be fascinated to see Goddard's case tested by law.

Goddard landed in hot water last week after retweeting a comment by Twitter user (at)Uptownhockey, an account for Burlington, Ont.-based Uptown Sports Management, which stated: "Very sad to read Sean Avery's misguided support of same-gender 'marriage.' Legal or not, it will always be wrong.''

In his own tweet, Goddard wrote: "I completely and whole-heartedly support (Uptown's) Todd Reynolds and his support for the traditional and TRUE meaning of marriage.''

A firestorm of criticism followed and it didn't take long for Goddard's employer, Rogers Sportsnet, to distance itself from his comments. The following day, the company released a statement announcing that Goddard was being let go, for reasons not necessarily connected to his Twitter account.

"Mr. Goddard was a freelance contractor and in recent weeks it had become clear that he is not the right fit for our organization,'' said Dave Rashford, Sportsnet's director of communications.

It's not clear if Goddard was given any compensation upon his dismissal, or if Rogers believed it had grounds under the law, based on his tweets or previous incidents, to send him walking. But theoretically, Goddard's story could make for an interesting wrongful dismissal case, Ball believes.

"I'm not so sure (his tweet) is cause for dismissal in law ... what he said was a comment which was within the realm of normalcy and not particularly controversial -- because a lot of people think what he thought,'' says Ball, adding that Rogers did protect itself by claiming other factors were at play in Goddard's firing.

"So I think with something like that, if it was contested in court, I think he'd have a very good chance of winning.''

Chris Bryden, an associate with the Toronto labour firm Ryder Wright Blair and Holmes, agreed that it'd be an interesting case to explore based on a user's rights to freedom of expression.

"At what point does an employer have a valid and bona fide interest in saying, 'Look, what you're doing in your private life is affecting our business and your place in our business?'' Because you can reach that point in the law," Bryden says.

"Lawyers' and judges' favourite word is balance, and balance has to be found. What's a person's right to freedom of expression and their views, how far does that go?''

But even having a case go through the courts won't necessarily establish a strong precedent to guide social media users on the dos and don'ts, Bryden says.

"Even when the courts draw that line, the line will be drawn on the specific facts of that case,'' he says.

"People are always going to be running a risk and if they want to find out where that line is they're going to have to go through a hell of a lot of litigation, and potentially lose their job, to find out where that line is.''

Even if an online post isn't extreme and career threatening, there's also a risk that a user could have their job opportunities derailed by their words, said Pina Nicoli of Robert Half, a global staffing firm.

According to a survey of 650 human relations managers in North America by Robert Half, about 76 per cent said technology etiquette breaches can affect a person's career. Most employees today probably aren't risking dismissal with their tweets and Facebook posts -- except in the most extreme cases -- but there are other very serious consequences.

"In most cases I think it really is just taking away from your credibility and taking away from your professional reputation,'' Nicoli says.

"If you have less credibility in the workplace or your professional reputation isn't strong then it's going to result in maybe a lack of opportunities to move forward, a lack of opportunities to participate in projects. Your manager might not take you in their confidence ... if they don't feel comfortable you can manage that professionally.

"The informal repercussions of not minding your Ps and Qs when it comes to technical etiquette can be a bigger issue for people.''

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