Free speech on the internet, may be costly

February 22, 2008 3:28:20 PM PST
Facebook face-offs. MySpace mudslinging. As the newbies in this year's presidential throw-down, throngs of young people are finding their political voice and, of course, they're finding it - often with little restraint - online. But that free speech could come at a cost.

With political expression traveling at warp speed online, bosses can instantly find that diatribe posted about Obama or McCain - and they can wield the ax for it just as quickly. The labor codes in 48 states have never protected employees from being fired for their political views. But, then again, personal information has never been so readily available.

"I think young people going in are under the assumption they are free to engage in free speech so long as it doesn't take you away from your work," said Jason Mattera, a 24-year-old spokesman for Young America's Foundation, a national conservative organization focused on college campuses.

That assumption has translated into a willingness among young people to take their politics to the Web. "People are getting really involved online," said Sean Sullivan, an 18-year-old student at Grove City College, Pa. "It's become really popular with the campaigns this year."

Bruce Barry, who wrote the book "Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace," said, "We all have this magical view of free speech." Young people's lack of work experience contributes to their misconception that they can say whatever they want about politics without workplace repercussions, he said.

The result is an election-year Internet riddled with vicious opinion blogs, partisan Facebook groups and a near free-for-all when it comes to young people's political expression.

"In a year like this, there are fewer and fewer of us left who don't have strong opinions," said Stephen Rothberg, president and founder of, an online recruitment and career advising site for young adults. "But once you post that information online, it's never really gone. And I think it comes as a shock to most (job) applicants just how much employers are digging into their digital dirt."

Lauren Koehler, 20, a senior at Boston University, said, "For a long time, I think people felt like the Internet was a massive safe harbor. "You could say things online that you couldn't in real life because it wouldn't come back to you. But as we've gone on, more and more people have had their 'real' lives affected by the things they post."

Professional networking organization ExecuNet e-mailed surveys to 15,000 recruiters and executives last year to determine their use of online resources in background checks. The vast majority of those who responded said they use online search engines and networking sites to learn more about candidates. Nearly half acknowledged they disqualified some job seekers because of information found online, ranging from evidence of drug use to extreme political views.

"It's that kind of stuff that bothers me," Koehler said.

"That I may miss out on opportunities because of something I posted on the Internet."

Online searches are becoming an increasingly routine part of the hiring process, said Brad Karsh, former director of talent acquisition at Leo Burnett advertising in Chicago.

"My advice is to shy away from political things on your resume because they do alienate certain people, and I tell candidates not to put anything online they wouldn't put on their resume," said Karsh, who now runs a career consultancy called JobBound.

"I'm not going to look at, say, all 500 people whose resumes I receive," said Karsh. "But if I narrow my list down to 10 or even to the final two, I might just go online and see what I can find."

"Stay away from attack content, viciously attacking candidates," said CollegeRecruiter's Rothberg. "If you write, 'I don't like Hillary because she's a woman,' you'll have a major problem with any employer."

While the Labor Department doesn't keep statistics on the reasons for hirings and firings, there have been a few high-profile incidents in which employers dismissed workers for their political views. And some of those targeted were adults.

During the 2004 presidential race, Lynne Gobbell of Moulton, Ala., now 45, lost her job at Enviromate, a housing-insulation maker, for pasting a Kerry/Edwards bumper sticker on her car. Phil Geddes, the company owner and staunch supporter of President Bush, suggested Gobbell could either "work for him or work for John Kerry."

By a lucky happenstance for Gobbell, getting canned from her old job turned into an opportunity. When Kerry's campaign heard what happened to her, he called Gobbell personally to offer her a job with his campaign, and she jumped at the chance.

The same year, then 35-year-old graphic designer Glen Hiller of Berkeley Springs, W.Va., was fired by Octavo Designs in Frederick, Md., after shouting comments criticizing the Iraq war during a rally for Bush. Octavo said Hiller embarrassed the company and the client who had provided the tickets to the rally.

And that political expression was tame compared with some of the out-there opinions young people are putting online this time around.

Just sift through Facebook, a social networking site that allows its (predominantly young) users to create personal profiles and join online groups. It's hard not to stumble across political groups with inflammatory slogans, such as, "Life's a bitch, why vote for one? Anti-Hillary '08," a group with more than 15,000 members.

Others include "George Bush is a Fascist" and "I think therefore I am not Republican." That's only the beginning, and the language of many others is too offensive to print.

Some young adults are exercising more caution online, especially with the unemployment rate sitting at 4.9 percent.

"We're seeing a significant uptick in nervousness by students," Rothberg said. "They're pessimistic about getting multiple job offers after graduation."

This pessimism could be trickling down to young adults' online behaviors. Some are making a point of keeping politics off-line - using the Internet as a clean slate for job applications instead of a soapbox for political opinions.

For Liz Egan, 23, an intern at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, her passion for politics doesn't make it to the Web. "There are a lot of employers who are shameless about getting their employees to find people on Facebook for them," Egan said. "I'm not rushing out to have a political blog because that's just not how I want to be defined."

Egan's not the only young adult weighing the value of going viral with political musings against future career prospects.

"Students, especially seniors in college, are so nervous and cautious about jobs," said Margot Locker, 22, a senior at Northwestern University. "I can see how people my age would be reluctant to put anything controversial - including their political views - online."

For Locker, who has worked on Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign and who started the Facebook group "Northwestern for Hillary," being politically active is more important than keeping quiet to protect job prospects.

"There's some personal information I'll be cautious about, but politically, I'll put all my views online," she said. "It's not even a second thought for me."

She's not alone. "No, I definitely didn't take the spineless route," said Mattera of Young America's Foundation. "It takes guts to say, 'This is what I believe in and I'm going to deal with the consequences.' If anyone denies me work in the future because I'm a conservative, so be it; everyone should wear their beliefs like a badge of honor."

Some free-speech advocates, such as "Speechless" author Barry, worry that as college advisers and hiring managers urge careful management of online profiles, fewer young people are likely to risk going public with their political views.

"University placement offices tell the kids, 'Think about what you're doing,"' and the political identity is an interesting variation," said Barry, who teaches management and sociology at Vanderbilt University.

CollegeRecruiter's Rothberg is equally apprehensive. "I hope we don't turn into a society that's afraid to be politically engaged because it might harm a job application 20 years down the road," Rothberg said. "But it's going to happen."