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Court: Union not responsible for Facebook threats

Court: Union not responsible for Facebook threats
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A federal court on Friday ruled in favor of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) arguing that it could not force unions to take down Facebook posts threatening workers for crossing a picket line.

Unlike in some public settings, a union is not responsible for the behavior of its members on a private online Facebook page, a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit declared.

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The case centered on Facebook comments posted during a six-day 2012 strike launched by a Phoenix branch of the Amalgamated Transit Union against bus company Veolia Transportation Services.

In the comments, some union members criticized workers who crossed the picket line. One post, for instance, asked a rhetorical question about whether people on strike could “bring the Molotov Cocktails” to the hotel where “scabs” were staying.

The union as a whole did not endorse the posts, and the Facebook page could only be accessed by members of the union.

Still, Charles Weigand, an employee at the bus company who was not a union member, argued that the union broke the law by declining to take those Facebook comments down. 

He brought his case to the NLRB, which decided not to take action.

However, the labor board’s acting general counsel issued a complaint claiming that the union had a “duty to disavow” the critical Facebook posts, just like it would have an obligation to disown misconduct on the actual picket line. Under the law, a labor union is responsible for the misbehavior of its members while they are on the picket line, unless it disavows it.

The Facebook page was merely “an electronic extension” of the picket line, the acting general counsel argued.

An administrative law judge rejected that argument and ruled in favor of the union.

On Friday, the appeals court agreed, saying that the private nature of the Facebook page made it different than a public picket line.

“In stark contrast to violence or threats occurring on a picket line, the speech complained of here occurred on a private forum on the Internet that was meant for union members’ eyes only,” Judge Harry Edwards wrote in his opinion on behalf of the judges.

The ruling helps to clarify some of the legal ground rules for threats and other speech made on the Internet, which is still a relatively murky area.

The Supreme Court is currently mulling a separate case questioning whether threats delivered as rap lyrics on Facebook qualify as “true threats” under the law.