Freedom Has Consequences

This article is about a London, Ontario man who posted a cruel comment on the memorial site for Amanda Todd (the 15-year-old Port Coquitlam, BC girl who committed suicide last week) and who was subsequently fired from his job after a woman from Airdrie, Alberta reported his comment to his employers. While the story shows an interesting involvement of many Canadian provinces in the story, the story itself is bothering me.

Certainly, what Jason Hutchings said on Todd’s memorial page is distasteful and cruel, and he’s a dink for posting it. The article above indicates he wanted to “stir up the pot a bit”, and I don’t understand that. Why would the pot need stirring? But Hutchings’ motivations aside, why is it now okay for people to be harassing him?

I’ll tell you :  it isn’t. It isn’t okay. Hutchings has EVERY RIGHT to say whatever the hell he wants about Amanda Todd. He has every right to say whatever he wants on her memorial page, no matter how distasteful and heartless it is. He did not advocate harm against Todd’s family, although one could argue that his comments were bordering on hate speech against women. Although I think that argument is, at best, shaky.

And I understand that employers have every right to develop and to enforce social media policies and to expect their employees to represent their business in a professional and respectable manner. Employers have every right to fire you if you violate their policies.

But did Jason Hutchings deserve to lose his job? Does he deserve to now be harassed by hundreds, possibly thousands of people for the mistake of being a complete cock? I don’t think his comment was harassment. It wasn’t threatening in any way. It was just incredibly cruel. The man has some kind of moral screw loose in his head, but that doesn’t mean we get to turn around and do to him exactly what people did to Amanda Todd that, the media tells me, caused her to commit suicide.

On one hand, if Hutchings’ comments are harmful to his employer, he should be subject to punitive action by his employer. Perhaps that means being fired. I don’t know what his employer’s social media policy is. And along this vein, we must take responsibility for our own actions. I don’t know what possessed the man (see screw loose comment above) to post his employer’s name with his comment, because he is *clearly* misrepresenting them.

But on the other hand, on the really really important hand, Jason Hutchings has every right to say whatever he wants, where he wants, when he wants. That is his right as a Canadian. Sure, there will be consequences. But he has that right.

I read another article where there was a line that went something along the lines of “people shouldn’t re-victimize the family”. And that made me a little angry. First of all, it’s bad grammar, and it’s bad writing. Secondly, it’s not “re-” anything. In much the same way as there’s no such thing as “reverse racism” (racists are racists, regardless of their cultural heritage and regardless of who they hate), every instance of harassment or assault or violation of rights creates a victim. Every. Single. Instance. “Re-victimize” smacks of whitewashed language, and I don’t understand why whoever said this wouldn’t have just said “victimize again”. I also have a problem with verbing nouns, though, so the whole idea of the word ‘victimize’ makes my teeth itch.

But back to my original point. I assume the company Mr. Hutchings worked for has had a social media policy in place for at least five years. I also assume Mr. Hutchings was aware of the policy. And therefore, the company was well within their rights to fire Mr. Hutchings for violating their well-established social media policy, if his cruel comments on Amanda Todd’s memorial site were in clear violation of this policy. But if that’s not the case, if the company *doesn’t* have a social media policy, if the policy wasn’t clear, or if Mr. Hutchings’ comments were not in clear violation of the policy, I don’t think he ought to have been fired at all.

And I *certainly* don’t think the man deserves to be, if you will, “victimized” himself. In other words, while you can fight fire with fire, usually a whole bunch of people get badly burned in the end.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s horrible that a fifteen year old girl committed suicide. I think it’s horrible that her video was up for FIVE WEEKS and she still didn’t receive the emergency care she needed. I think what Hutchings (and others) have said on her memorial site is atrocious. One of the biggest downfalls of social media is how quickly it permits us all to descend to the lowest depths to which it is possible to descend. And how shocking it is that we go there. What is wrong with us?

You and I need to focus on making things *better*, not worse.

  13 comments for “Freedom Has Consequences

  1. 17 October 2012 at 9:48 am

    He shouldn’t be harassed by a vigilante mob, no, but his boss can absolutely can the dude if the comment became tied his business.

  2. Platypusnboots
    17 October 2012 at 9:53 am

    But we also do not know what, if any, trouble this guy has previously been in with his employer. The issue may not be one stupid Facebook comment.

  3. 17 October 2012 at 10:50 am

    Both very good points. From the articles I’ve read, it’s not clear if the fellow had had any previous disciplinary action taken against him. With just the information given, I assume the employer fired him “without cause”, meaning they’ll have had to pay him out for the duration of his contract and/or for the two weeks’ (standard) severance pay in lieu of notice.

    That being said, I think the guy actually might have (if this is the only thing he’s done that his employer took umbrage with) an actionable case for wrongful dismissal.

    None of this condones the horrible things he posted, of course, and I absolutely agree that if I owned a business and some asshat posted douchey comments with my business name attached to them, I’d take disciplinary action. I’m just not sure it’s a fireable offence.

  4. Robin a.k.a.Miskinak (@RobinTurtle2010)
    17 October 2012 at 11:39 am

    I have a feeling there was employment history that preceded this.

    That said, yes he had the right to say what he wants, where he wants and when he wants and with that right comes the cost of consequences. Freedom of speech can actually be quite costly. The sooner people learn this the better we’d all be.

    Is he really being harassed? really? Or is he whining about being fired “just because of a silly little comment on a social site”? A lot of people have a difficult time understanding how their behaviour affects how they are treated in society. But it’s a simple cause and affect rule.

    This is something needs to be learned though – I don’t think human nature acquires it naturally. With the ease and freedom the internet now gives this right, it is something that should be taught in school ‘the cost of freedom of speech’ or ‘care and feeding of your right to speak freely and what it means to you’.

    There’s freedom and there’s also etiquette, respect, compassion, empathy and understanding. We have free access to all those as well but I rarely see people standing up and declaring them. Which is a shame really. “I have the right of freedom for compassion” looks so much better on a sandwich board than “No one can take away my freedom of speech nyah nyah”.

    • 17 October 2012 at 12:32 pm

      Those are all really, really, REALLY good points, Robin. Thank you for making them. And I’m going to include them in the class I’m teaching about social media tomorrow.

      You ROCK!

  5. M
    17 October 2012 at 11:54 am

    Actions have consequences. I don’t want this guy strung up or hounded by an angry mob, but just as he has a right to speak his mind so too do others have a right judge him on what he’s said and treat his accordingly (including talking bad about him online).

    I mean I don’t feel bad at all that someone on a forum a frequent works for a big consulting firm in Violentacrez’s area and contacted several HR directors to let them know who that guy really was when the news broke that his real name being outed had cost him his job.

    Maybe this wasn’t a fireable offense, in which case the ones responsible are probably going to be in trouble, but if it was within their power I really can’t blame them at all.

  6. Bob Loblaw
    17 October 2012 at 9:18 pm

    First, he shouldn’t be harassed. We don’t accept lynch mobs rolling down a city street, and we shouldn’t accept them in the Internet tubes. We have established, after much trial and error, that vigilante justice does not work so good.

    I am fine with him getting terminated, assuming the company did due diligence and confirmed he said the thing that got him in trouble. I think someone who would “stir the pot” like that would likely be a toxic element to work with, and if he didn’t take any pains to conceal his identity, that’s just stupid.

    For good or ill. your online identity is public and follows you everywhere. If I were in a position to hire someone, I likely would Google them and check their public profiles. If I was interviewing a guy with this name and I was reasonable sure that it was the same guy, I would move on to the next candidate. Right or wrong, fair or not, that is the reality.

    This is somewhat unfortunate for me, since I have plenty of minority opinions. I live in a predominantly Christian society, but I’m an atheist. I live in the heart of the Rider Nation, and am largely indifferent to football. I happen to like Game of Thrones, and roughly half of my friends don’t care for it. None of these are likely to prevent me from keeping or holding a job, but I am still careful about when, where and how I express those opinions. Because that’s the civil thing to do.

    As for freedom of speech, we have to remember why we have it and why we think it’s important. It’s primary use is to correct social conventions that aren’t working out. If someone expresses an opinion intelligently and it gets other people talking, freedom of speech is working to spec even if nothing else changes. Smacking someone down for saying something stupid does not interfere with that.

    Finally, there are employers who wouldn’t have cared what the guy said. The complaint wouldn’t have been acted on and we’d be talking about something else. I’m glad I don’t work in such places anymore, it’s better for my mental health, but it doesn’t bother me that such places exist.

  7. Woz
    17 October 2012 at 9:24 pm

    Freedom of speech exists so people can say things that others disagree with, even if that offends them. His remarks were thoughtless and in bad taste, but that does not mean he doesn’t have the right to say them.

    If he is being fired for this, his freedom of speech is being denied him by his company. It is not the role of his company to censor him. I don’t want it to be the role of any company or organization to take on the role of censor. Only if he talks about his company in a disparaging way should he be fired without compensation. He likely has a case against the company for unjustified dismissal and also perhaps for denying him freedom of speech.

    On the other hand if the public in general wants to publicly shame him, I think that is justified. Some degree of responsibility is required for the freedoms that we enjoy.

    • 17 October 2012 at 10:36 pm

      I am left wondering if his (former) employer was attempting to censor him or attempting to censure him.

    • Bob Loblaw
      17 October 2012 at 11:21 pm

      His freedom of speech isn’t being denied. At all. He hasn’t been shot and he hasn’t been arrested. Quite the opposite since he had his side of the story published in a national newspaper. If someone is trying to deny his freedom of speech, they’re doing a pretty terrible job. If his freedom of speech was actually restricted, we wouldn’t have heard about it at all.

      For that matter, he now has plenty of free time to call talk radio or start a blog or whatever. That is how he’d express his freedom of speech. No one is obligated to pay him for his opinion.

      The company made a business decision. I doubt they’ll get in trouble for wrongful dismissal, but he is certainly free to try that approach.

  8. Platypusnboots
    17 October 2012 at 10:39 pm

    As a rule, you should never identify your employer in your social media unless that is part of your employment (ie. you are the PR assigned). The minute you identify as an employee of X, you are now involving X in that conversation whether you mean to or not. One of the tests considered in such cases is “reasonable expectation of privacy”. Facebook & Twitter are designed and function to exchange data to a public or deemed public audience. Even with fb privacy cranked, you are posting things you intend other people to see. Your personal email is one place you have a “reasonable expectation” so long as you are mailing a small, defined and known audience. Your work email, fyi, not private.

  9. juba
    18 October 2012 at 6:35 am

    Ugh. I never thought I’d be the one to make this argument, but I blame gaming culture. After decades of gaming, I find it takes considerable effort to remember that there are actually live humans on the other side of my screen, and not just pixels and code. Many people forget this, and tend to be outright assholes online because they just don’t see it as “Real Life”. Take the Grand Theft Auto series for example. In there, I will chase someone for miles with a baseball bat just because they made a rude comment. I throw grenades into oncoming traffic just to see if I can get cars to do some really cool flips. And I won’t even mention the staggering amount of pure hatred that I spew at NPC’s.
    So with that in mind, I can see why he was a jerk. Do I condone it? No, but I understand it. And I understand the reactions to it. It’s a shame that we have reached this level of disconnect when we go online.

    • 19 October 2012 at 8:55 am

      People have been assholes since the beginning of time. I don’t think gamers have a monopoly on being insecure jerkwads who hide behind their computer screens. Social media makes jerkwaddery *easier*, but anyone who can’t tell the difference between throwing a pineapple at a monkey and encouraging someone to kill themselves is a few wavelengths short of the full spectrum.

      I blame (in part) the 1980s and the “I’m okay, you’re okay” curriculum in schools, at least in part. The touchy-feely bullshit that curriculum brought out made an entire generation almost wholly incapable of dealing with emotions other than passive contentment.

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