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Code of conduct applies to social media presence


May 10, 2022 Dan Grassick, ATA Secretary to Professional Conduct Committees


Pitfalls and Precautions is a series that aims to educate teachers on professional conduct issues by highlighting situations addressed by the ATA Professional Conduct Committee.

As professionals, teachers are accountable for their words and actions — at school, after hours, in person and online. In addition to the Teaching Profession Act and the Code of Professional Conduct, the ATA’s Professional Conduct Committee relies on legal precedents concerning teachers and other professionals to make its decisions about the potential unprofessional conduct of members.

When there are allegations that a teacher’s online expression may be unprofessional, the committee often refers to Strom v Saskatchewan Registered Nurses’ Association, a landmark decision that identifies a number of factors that should be considered by regulatory bodies when determining whether online speech (i.e., social media posting) by professionals constitutes unprofessional conduct. Paraphrased for teaching, these factors are, as follows:

  1. Was the speech made while the teacher was on duty or otherwise acting in their professional capacity?
  2. Did the teacher identify themselves as a teacher?
  3. Is there a professional connection between the teacher and the individuals or institutions they criticized?
  4. Did the speech relate to services provided to the teacher or their family or friends?
  5. Was the speech the result of emotional distress or mental illness?
  6. Was the teacher’s criticism truthful and fair?
  7. Was the speech published or available? If so, what was the size and nature of the audience?
  8. Was the teacher’s expression intended to contribute to social or political discourse about an important issue?
  9. What is the nature and scope of the damage to the profession and the public interest?

Recently, the Professional Conduct Committee heard a case that focused on the negative comments a teacher made on social media about a news story. The news story, posted by a major media outlet to its Facebook account, concerned an injured student who attended school in a division that had previously employed the teacher. Rather than commenting on the subject of the news story, the teacher’s comment was squarely directed at their former employer. In their comment, the investigated member identified themselves as a teacher and shared negative comments about the division and its senior leadership.

In applying Strom to this teacher’s case, the committee determined that the teacher’s comment clearly identified them as a teacher, which lended credibility to their words in the eyes of the public. The teacher’s comments were focused on their previous negative working relationship with their former employer, not with the specific matter of the injured student. The teacher was experiencing emotional distress at the time they posted, but they clearly remained angry at their former employer. The teacher’s comments were vexatious, not truthful or fair social political commentary. The teacher’s comment was made on the Facebook post of a major news outlet where it was viewed by hundreds of people. Given the number of reactions, comments and shares on the post, it is reasonable to assume that the member’s words damaged the profession’s public reputation to some degree. As such, the teacher was found guilty of unprofessional conduct and was issued a letter of reprimand and a $250 fine. ❚

  If you need advice about maintaining your professionalism in our increasingly online world, or if you want to book an e-liability workshop for you and your colleagues, please call 1-800-232-7208 and ask to speak to Teacher Employment Services.

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