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Social media bans in college sports offer lessons for enterprises

Lauren Brousell | Sept. 28, 2015
Recent policies that restrict social media use by collegiate athletes raise questions about students' right to freedom of speech and the authority of their teams and schools. What can companies learn from academia's hits and misses?

Mastellone has never seen a company completely ban social, but she often deals with organizations that want to develop appropriate social media policies to cover possible areas of vulnerability. In general, employees must follow the specific policies in place at their organizations, but they also have the legal right to discuss workplace conditions on social media in groups of two or more, according to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The NLRB regulates non-unionized workforces and can crack down on corporate social media policies if employees file grievances, or the regulations don't adhere to NLRB rules. The group would oversee college athletes if they were considered a unionized workforce. However, NLRB recently denied a request from a group of Northwestern University scholarship football players to be recognized as employees and to form a union, which quickly killed that effort.

Future implications of today's social media bans

If student athletes feel their First Amendment rights have been violated, they can appeal to the courts. That road can be a long one, however, and it could take years for decisions to be handed down. Mastellone says if bans eventually become more widespread, it won't be long before a player or a First Amendment lawyer sues a college or university and spotlights the issue.

Jennifer Grygiel, assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, suggests colleges and universities that are considering social media restrictions take a "wait and see" approach until the issue shakes out. "See what the courts weigh in on, and see how it plays out. We don't have a precedent for it yet."

Organizations simply need to be smart about social media usage, and the ways they attempt to govern it, and continue to educate stakeholders, whether they are employees or student athletes, Mastellone says. Corporations that want to regulate employee use of social should be as specific as possible with policies and make sure they're accordance with NLRB rules, and then refresh them often, to minimize risk. "Overly broad policies will only get employers into trouble. The more narrow, the better the company will be, and the better their chances to enforce them," she says.


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