DawnMarie Souza was fired several months ago from her job with a Connecticut ambulance company because she posted derogatory comments about her employers, and engaged in messages with other co-workers which also disparaged the company. Her dismissal caused a firestorm of discussions both for and against Ms. Souza and her previous employers.

On February 10, 2011 The National Labor Relations Board and Ms. Souza agreed to put an end to a lawsuit that was filed over her firing. The financial terms of the settlement were not disclosed, but it is for certain that she will not be returning to work for that same company.

The NLRB says that since Souza was writing on her personal computer, at home and on her own time, her statements about her employers were considered protected speech. The ambulance company’s social media and Internet policies were in violation of the National Labor Relations Act that protect employees’ right to talk about wages, working conditions and other factors.

“That law allows employees to discuss the terms and conditions of their employment with co-workers and others, and the employee involved in the case had posted comments about her supervisor and responded to further comments from her co-workers, the NLRB said.”

The woman’s employer, a Connecticut ambulance company, is also changing its blogging and Internet use policies, which in my opinion were extremely broad, from telling employees that they may not “depict the company in any way over the Internet without permission” to rules that will no longer prohibit employees from talking about work online, even if such talk constitutes what the company called “online badmouthing” at the start of Souza’s hearing.

As NLRB regional director Jonathan Kreisberg told the Associated Press, “The fact that they agreed to revise their rules so that they’re not so overly restrictive of the rights of employees to discuss their terms and conditions with others and with their fellow employees is the most significant thing that comes out of this.”

In my opinion, employers should not write policies that restrict employee speech, simply because it is on the internet. In other words, any restrictions on Internet speech that are written into employee policies should not be broader than they would be for speech in real life. If a policy would be illegally restrictive when applied to a soapbox in a town square, it’s illegal for Internet speech. Again, just my opinion, take it for what it’s worth.

When developing policies, companies should be advised by their legal counsel as to the restrictions that are lawful — for example libel, obscenity, imminent threats — but should bear in mind that the Internet as the medium isn’t relevant. It appears to me that this judgment makes it plain that Facebook, Twitter, blogs, forum posts, etc. are just another form of speech, with the same protections under Federal law. However, I am not a lawyer, nor do I pretend to be, so I could be wrong.

Still, the variables of location, timing, tone and content of Facebook comments mean that not all Facebook posts are protected speech.

The moral of the story, employees should still exercise good judgment when discussing work and personal matters online. If nothing else, this should illustrate how dangerous it is for Facebook users to imagine they have any shred of private control over the content in their Facebook account.

As always, I welcome any thoughts, comments, or questions. Just post them in the space provided by clicking “Comments” below. ,