Twitter Harassment and the Limits of Employment Law

It is an interesting almost-paradox that in 2016, the Internet is an open, seemingly boundless space where young people often learn about the limits of the real world. Crises within Internet communities have an unfortunate tendency to spill out into the real world, and what may seem like good fun online suddenly has material effects on real lives. Consider a social media outlet like Twitter, where unbridled discourse sometimes runs into the reality of at-will employment:

Politics on Twitter can be bewildering to the uninitiated. There’s “Traditional Conservative Twitter,” “Alt-Right Twitter,” “Gamergate Twitter,” “Liberal Pundit Twitter,” “Liberal Think Tank Twitter,” “Left Twitter,” “Communist Twitter,” “Woke Twitter,” and many more, all consisting of people tweeting and retweeting each other as they build a sense of online community while typically spending just as much time tweeting and retweeting other “Twitters” so at to chastise and make fun of them.

Indeed, Twitter is perhaps most interesting when groups collide. Users often spend entire afternoons in the online equivalent of a ‘shouting match’ with other users. Each user’s followers will pick up digital arms and fight on behalf of their preferred side. A great deal of mental energy and frustration is expended, and a user’s day typically ends with some hurt feelings and the satisfaction of having written a few clever zingers. But, there is a darker side. The line between a ‘shouting match’ and harassment is often blurred. While the two main individuals arguing may be careful not to cross any lines, their followers are often not so careful. Women are on the receiving end of the majority of these attacks.1 The idea that many attacks are not justified is an understatement. However, there’s another facet to this: what some may perceive as harassment may be valid criticisms that they do not understand. It becomes even harder to parse when these valid criticisms come alongside a tidal wave of unjustified attacks.

So, what are people who are victimized on Twitter supposed to do beyond reporting the offending user to Twitter, Inc.? If they’re lucky, their harasser is not posting anonymously and they can make the harassment public in an attempt to shame the offender. Sometimes this works, and results in repercussions such as that person losing their job. Many find it easy to cheer when sexist Toronto firefighters are punished for their online behavior, especially by a department that wants to encourage more females to join.2 However, it is not always easy to know what is fair.

Consider the case of Matt Bruenig, who was once a major personality in “Left Twitter.” Best known for his data-driven anti-poverty writing for the left-liberal think tank Demos, Bruenig had an abrasive Twitter personality. After calling Neera Tanden, head of the liberal think tank Center for American Process, a “scumbag” for her role in the 1996 welfare reform bill, the resulting kerfuffle was large enough that Demos fired Bruenig.3 To the outside observer, it is not clear whether this was a case of a small blogger being beaten down by an influential political figure, or the comeuppance of a Twitter personality whose bread and butter was demeaning people online. What is clear, however, is that regardless of the morals, ethics, and reality of whatever happened, Demos had the right to fire Bruenig; who was of no recourse in this situation. As the Supreme Court of California has explained:

“[A]n employer may terminate its employees at will, for any or no reason . . . the employer may act peremptorily, arbitrarily, or inconsistently, without providing specific protections such as prior warning, fair procedures, objective evaluation, or preferential reassignment . . . The mere existence of an employment relationship affords no expectation, protectable by law, that employment will continue, or will end only on certain conditions, unless the parties have actually adopted such terms.”4

And that is the reality in which naïve Twitter users learn about the real world every time online fights are taken seriously.

  1. Reporting, Reviewing, And Responding To Harassment on Twitter: Infographic, Women Action Media, http://womenactionmedia.org/twitter-report/twitter-abuse-infographic.
  2. Peter Kuitenbrouwer, Two Toronto firefighters terminated over ‘unacceptable’ sexist tweets, third reportedly fired over Facebook post, National Post (Sept. 16, 2013), http://news.nationalpost.com/toronto/two-toronto-firefighters-terminated-over-unacceptable-sexist-tweets-third-reportedly-fired-over-facebook-post.
  3. Liz Flowers, Reflections on Social Media and Our Responsibility, Demos (May 20, 2016), http://www.demos.org/press-release/reflections-social-media-and-our-responsibility.
  4. Guz v. Bechtel National, Inc., 24 Cal. 4th 317, 352 (2000).

Author: Jeremy Bunyaner

Jeremy Bunyaner is a graduate of McGill University in Political Science, History, and Russian. He grew up in the sleepy town of Berkeley Heights, New Jersey. Currently a 2L, his interests in law range from entertainment law to immigration and public interest. In his free time he likes to personalize his home and try cooking new recipes. He also enjoys long bike rides from the woods to Penn Station and calling his girlfriend, who wrote this.