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Fired for blogging – what’s the legal angle?

By February 21, 2008current affairs, law

There’s been much discussion for the past few years about the dangers of blogging, especially the dangers of getting fired for blogging. As more lawyers became familiar with blogging, we’ve started to see discussions—and lately even some lengthy seminars—about the legal issues related to blogging by employees. Corporations have been advised by these lawyers, many of whom are not bloggers, to create a manual that specifies what is expected and prohibited with respect to blogging.

CNN apparently had an employee manual that may have addressed blogging, although a producer who was recently fired suggests that the manual was not so clear. And he was apparently not given a copy of the manual. But, admittedly, that’s his view. We don’t know what CNN’s position is.

And that brings me to my point.

CNN is in the business of reporting news, which is to say: distributing information. They fired someone who is highly adept at writing and reporting. This former employee has learned how to distribute information on the Internet. And the story that he’s now most interested writing about is his own dismissal. I don’t know if his account is accurate, but I know this. It’s very well-written and seems entirely plausible. He writes about his shortcomings and his rebellious tendencies, which makes his version seem even more plausible.

CNN, of course, is hamstrung. It can write nothing, and is no doubt being advised not to by its lawyers. If it does manage to write its version of events that story will lack any human resonance. It will be nothing more than a press release. Do you see the irony yet?

Even assuming that CNN’s employee policy specifically applies to blogging (and therefore provides legal justification for firing the blogger/producer), it still has to deal with the negative fallout from someone who has inside knowledge of how it operates. Rarely do we get to see the inner-workings of a news show. What news company is going to point the cameras at itself?

But now CNN’s actions have resulted in precisely that. Except that they have no control over the story. And they have little meaningful control over the response to the story. I think this may be a case of applying the law to exacerbate a problem, rather than to control (which is often impossible) or diminish the problem. I guess what I’m saying is that maybe the legal angle to this story is a big part of CNN’s problem.

And perhaps CNN will find that having an employee handbook (which may have been tweaked after consultation with high-priced lawyers) isn’t turning out to be the great weapon that they had hoped it would be. But, just as news companies rarely point the camera at themselves, lawyers rarely advise clients to consider the negative fallout from using the law to solve a big problem. Lawyers, like journalists, have self-interests that sometimes override their supposed allegiance to the people they serve.

Shocking, isn’t it?


P.S. If you appreciate these kinds of observations, you might want to read this as well.

One Comment

  • Anne Birdsong says:

    Ernie, check out dooce.com. Her story starts with being filed for blogging, a term she calls being “dooced.”

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