A small firestorm has broken out in the media world in the last week over one element of Axios editor Jim VandeHei’s thoughts on ways the industry can help combat the spread of “fake news.” Specifically, this point:

The Axios social media policy, which applies to all our colleagues, prohibits the sharing of political views or derogatory snark online: “Don’t say anything on the internet that you wouldn’t publish under your byline or say on TV.”

That’s not dissimilar from the rule I used to ask people to abide by in the social media policies I’ve written for various employers: “Don’t say anything online you wouldn’t say in your grandmother’s living room.” The idea was to encourage people to remain civil, polite and not create an appearance of impropriety. We didn’t want someone posting too much about drinking or other activities but to curate a profile that was professional and informational.

There was one caveat, though, that I always included: All of that aside, your social profiles are yours to do with what you will. They were yours before you joined the company, they are yours now and they’ll be yours after you leave. On only a few occasions did I ever have reason to talk with someone about what they’ve posted, and it was always about something posted within the office, not tied to a personal opinion on an external matter.

It’s true that the standards for journalists are – and should be – higher than they are for employees at other private companies. They hold the keys to a public trust and are relied upon, at least the traditional theory has held, to deliver the truth about what’s happening in the world.

VandeHei’s point is right, even if the logic isn’t quite right. Instead of talking about what is or isn’t right to say on social media, we need to be talking about what is or isn’t right to say under a byline. That’s the point that employers of all types should be reconsidering.

Social media policies are essential for companies to have. The best ones protect both employers and employees from touching third rails and getting themselves in trouble. But many of them were crafted in simpler times, when there wasn’t quite such rancor and quite such division, before a president regularly went out calling the press “the enemy of the people” and labeling any Democratic voter a criminal.

Those policies need to be updated. Not allowing people to voice their dissent on social and political issues – even if it comes across as venting their rage on a topic – is irresponsible to the public good. And certainly operating an unofficial (and therefore unaccountable) system of firing or blackballing employees and freelancers because of their social media posts like the one that apparently took down writer Chuck Wendig is unacceptable.

Policies that restrict what employees, freelancers and others working for or with a company often benefit only entrenched power. By creating an environment where people are reluctant to speak up when it challenges those in power because it puts their income in jeopardy, employers inherently stifle speech in a way that only benefits those who want to see speech stifled.

It’s worth considering some ways corporate social media policies, including those that apply to journalists and members of the media, can be revisited and revised:

  1. Political speech is fine. Let’s just drop the notion that taking a position one way or another is somehow a bad idea or should have any impact on your employment status. We are in a world where the average worker has little to no voice in the political system, thanks in part to a growing number of politicians coming from privileged backgrounds, the demise of union membership and more. If it’s alright for CEOs to take on the role of social activist, it stands to reason that it’s alright for the line staff to do likewise. After all, who has more actual influence over the direction of the company and how it’s going to survive?
  2. Instead of focusing on opinions, focus on what’s shared. There’s a stronger case to be made that people should be held accountable for sharing false or purposefully misleading “news” than for simply sharing news they feel strongly about. So a post where you share outrage that liberal politicians are being targeted by a right-wing bombing fanatic is reasonable, as is being mad about attempts to repeal healthcare coverage. On the other hand, sharing a story about how those bombings were a “false flag” operation by liberals to win the midterms should definitely lead to a conversation.
  3. The bar for firing someone should be much higher. Seriously, this should be the last resort. There should be a long list of steps that must be taken before it gets to that point and there should be an open dialogue about what issues can and should be addressed. Basically firing an employee who has violated a policy should be given every opportunity to explain what they did and why they did it and justify their actions and only after they’ve shown themselves to be unrepentant should they be let go.

Times are different, and the concerns that formed the cornerstone of the original wave of social media policies aren’t as paramount as they once were. Employees should be told they’re not to share corporate secrets, to disclose paid or client relationships when sharing information about their work and so on. But they should also be protected from ramifications for simply taking a stance on social and political issues. That’s the only way democracy thrives, and those policies should reflect that.

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