Perils of social media – a tweet too far?

Love or hate him, Joey Barton has again hit the headlines following some provocative “tweets” concerning a fellow professional football player, Karl Henry. Following a 3-0 win by Queens Park Rangers over Wolves last weekend and a heavy tackle, Barton, the captain of QPR, launched a verbal attack on Henry, a Wolves midfielder.

Barton posted on his Twitter account: “I bet u Kelvin [sic] Henry feels like an idiot again today. He should just keep his trap firmly shut. #sundayleagueplayer. I wasn’t happy another player tried to cause an injury when the game [sic] nearly over. Just cos he’s inferior in every way.”

This is not the first time that a high profile sports player has turned to social media to vent their frustrations and is, indeed, not the last. Even since the Barton story Twitter has again been in the news following the Samoan rugby centre, Elliot Fuimaono-Sapulo, criticising the International Rugby Board for Samoa’s World Cup timetable and posting that Samoa had been treated unfairly “like slavery, like the holocaust, like apartheid.”

Employment lawyers have been advising clients on the pitfalls of employees’ use of social networking sites for a number of years now. It is, perhaps, hardly surprising that an employee can be disciplined and even dismissed where they post offensive and derogatory comments online which bring their employer into disrepute. In some cases postings can also be discriminatory, amount to bullying and harassment and may even be libellous. There is a steady and increasing flow of employment tribunal cases that are helping to draw a distinction between an employee’s right to exercise free speech and a disciplinary/dismissal offence.

Earlier this month Acas issued guidelines on how employers can develop policies regarding social networking. Regarding blogging and tweeting, the guidelines set out that there should be appropriate rules concerning the range of opinions that employees may express. Acas also recommends that larger organisations should consider developing separate policy guidance on the use of social networking sites, making clear that if their employees post any comments that might damage the company’s reputation they may face disciplinary action.  Many employers have already developed policies concerning the use of social media sites and some have even banned their employees from accessing these at work to avoid any risk of irresponsible behaviour.

Turning back to the world of sports and celebrity, it seems right that those in the public eye should be  even more circumspect about how they present their views to the general public as they ought to recognise their weighty influence on the young (and often the not so young). Whilst many clubs are, in all reality, highly unlikely to consider the dismissal of a star player in such circumstances there are now signs that they are recognising and paying attention to the dangers of loose words and internet postings.

Anecdotally, I understand that some football clubs are now taking these matters seriously and engaging the services of lawyers to talk to the players and highlight and advise them of the legal requirement to exercise restraint in their public musings. For those wanting a change in controversial back page headlines and a more professional approach from leading sports figures and celebrities, one can only welcome this news and hope the developing law in this area and the new Acas guidelines will have some positive impact.

Nick Hurley, partner, Charles Russell LLP