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Facebook and Privacy: Fired for Beer Photos?

Think your Facebook profile is private? So did former teacher Ashley Payne, till she got fired for posting pictures from a European vacation.


Your Facebook profile is probably full of things that can get you fired. Just ask 24-year-old Ashley Payne, a former English teacher at Apalachee High School in Winder, Georgia. Back in 2009, Payne's principal asked her to resign over a photo taken during a summer European vacation and posted on Facebook. Her story was featured on the most recent episode of the CBS news show 48 hours, "Did the Internet Kill Privacy?" and it spotlights how vulnerable we are—teachers and everyone else—to our online "private" behavior being made public.

In the objectionable photo, Payne has a glass of wine in one hand, and a glass of beer in the other. Her principal, David McGee, claimed that a concerned parent complained about the photo. According to the district, Payne violated warnings about "unacceptable online activities" because the photo "promoted alcohol use," and her page also "contained profanity."


Payne's lawyer Richard Storrs says the school district's interpretation is ridiculous. "It would be like I went to a restaurant and I saw my daughter's teacher sitting there with her husband having a glass of some kind of liquid. You know, is that frowned upon by the school board? Is that illegal? Is that improper? Of course not. It's the same situation in this case," he says.

Payne's case isn't the first time someone's been fired over their use of social media. Plenty of litigation is pending over employees being fired for things they've posted online. But what makes Payne's story especially concerning is that she did what many of us do to protect ourselves in cyberspace—she put her Facebook privacy on the highest level. That means what's on her page should have only been visible to her friends, which did not include students or their parents.

Payne either has a frenemy or Facebook's privacy settings failed her. Given the amount of data that Facebook has on each of its 500 million users, either scenario is a little scary—and the way human resources departments react to people like Payne innocently living their personal lives is even scarier. Payne later found out that the complaint didn't come from a parent. It came from an anonymous email, meaning anybody could potentially send something about you to your boss that could get you fired.

Just think, in a tough economy, an unemployed Facebook "friend" who's in the same field as you could anonymously email a photo from your trip to California wine country to your boss in the hopes that you'll be fired—thus creating a job vacancy. Ex-boyfriends that you haven't yet defriended could exact their revenge by taking screen shots of every time you've typed "I don't feel like going to work" as your Facebook status.

Those may sound like far fetched scenarios, but ask Payne about privacy online—she's spent the past two years in a legal battle to get her job back and clear her name.

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