By David Middlebrook and Wendi L. Hodges
One surprising area of emerging legal issues is in regards to social media. The use of such sites by churches is so prevalent in today’s society, it is hard to believe that, not so long ago, most people had never heard of Facebook or Twitter. (Though, shockingly, there are still some people out there now who don’t know what a “Tweet” is!)
However, over the past year lawsuits have been filed against churches which are centered specifically around the church’s (or the church’s employees’ or volunteers’) usage of these social media forums. Your first thought probably mirrors ours, which was “Huh?”
Many, if not most, churches and ministries now regularly use social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, in their ministry efforts. Churches have discovered that posting to such sites is an effective and easy (and free) way to communicate with members of the church, particularly in youth ministries. However, imagine a scenario in which a church employee posts a comment to one of these sites, using a computer or other mobile device that was supplied to him by the church, and that the comment itself was a malicious or defamatory statement directed towards another church member or a member of the community at large.
Or, to show an innocent, less intentional scenario, imagine the church’s youth pastor posts pictures of a recent youth event that was a huge success, and in doing so he posts a photograph of a kid whose parent (for whatever personal reason they may have) has not given the church permission to use that child’s image, or especially to post that image in a very public place.
Action without malice
Although this scenario contemplates an action of an employee that was done without malice, the simple posting of a photograph of a minor could be terribly problematic for your church.
The problem with such posts is that they never go away. Think about it. You post a comment, and then you don’t think about it again. That comment sits out there on the Internet for all of the world to see for as long as they want to go looking for it. Sure, they can be deleted – but what happens if someone else “re-tweets” that comment? What is the effect of a “Like”? What does it mean, legally, to be “friends” with someone on Facebook, or to “follow” them on Twitter?
The lines are blurred between when someone may be posting for personal reasons versus posting while employed by the church; even if an employee’s use of social media is strictly done for personal use, many viewers may assume that they are speaking on behalf of the church.
Churches should take note of the recent Anthony Weiner scandal, or as some news stations dubbed it, the “Weiner-Gate scandal.” After mistakenly tweeting a link to an X-rated photo of himself, the former congressman from New York was attacked by news outlets across the country.
Even though the picture was quickly taken down, the media continued to dive through Internet archives and uncovered more incriminating photos of the congressman. That led to an investigation into Weiner’s “followers” on Twitter, the most shocking of which were several younger women involved in the pornography industry with whom he had “sexted.”
The result? A resignation letter from former congressman Weiner and a media-frenzied month — not just one day. While this set of events is definitely on the extreme end of the spectrum of examples, it is a real life case of what could happen if an individual has a moral failure and gets careless, all in a social media forum that is designed to share your life with the world.
While this sort of technology is a relevant and effective method of communication, your church should be aware of the inherent legal, ethical and moral implications that are tied to this type of media. Specifically, churches should be aware of the following:
Cautions to observe
Public forum: The Internet and social media tools are a public and not a private forum. This means that anything posted online is available, regardless of privacy settings used or efforts to delete the content. And, for the most part, any postings or statements made in this setting are available to be viewed for a long period of time, perhaps indefinitely.
We recommend that churches refrain from posting personal contact information on the church website. In the event that you have a specific event that you are advertising, we recommend having inquiries be directed to the church office. The church office can then disseminate the information to the pertinent individuals.
Confidentiality: As an employee of the church, you will be privy to and receive information that is confidential in nature. You must use caution not to intentionally or inadvertently discuss, transmit, divulge, or reproduce in any form confidential information. This includes the publication of private prayer requests.
Intellectual property: The church must make sure not to post logos, materials, trademarks, copyrights or other creative works that do not belong to the church.
Devotion of time: Time devoted to social media for church-related purposes should be reasonable and should create value for your church.
While it is true that there are a number of risks with using a social media site, such as accidentally posting something which you didn’t mean to which could inadvertently cause you great embarrassment and/or heartache (see the above reference to Congressman Weiner), there are also a lot of benefits. To help minimize some of the risks, we recommend that all churches and ministries adopt a “social media policy” that addresses these issues. The policy should make sure to point out that your church has a reputation for conducting its business and ministry activities with integrity and in accordance with the highest ethical and biblical standards.
Therefore, any director, officer, employee or volunteer of the church is obliged to uphold that reputation in every activity they perform, including the individual’s use of social media on both a work-related and a personal basis. The policy should set out the various expected guidelines that the individual should follow, including but not limited to such things as (1) notifying a supervisor of their desire to use social media for ministry-related purposes (so that the supervisor can be monitoring those sites), (2) upholding Christian standards, particularly in regards to the comments and photographs posted, (3) maintaining respect of others by not speaking disparagingly or negatively about anyone, and by not ridiculing, gossiping, or defaming any individual or organization, including the church itself, (4) obtaining permission before posting any pictures taken at a church-sponsored event, and (5) exercising great care when communicating with minors and avoiding any communication that could raise any questions about appropriate behavior.
Another option would be to make it a requirement that all employees or volunteers must include a disclaimer of sorts when posting to social media forums, making it clear that the views expressed by the individual are their own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the church.
Because the potential risks associated with using these sorts of sites are so new, and because there is virtually no settled law as yet regarding the employer church’s level of liability, it is hard to gauge the real effect of some of these actions. In the meantime, we urge you to remain cautious with your use of such sites.
David Middlebrook is a partner and Wendi L. Hodges is an attorney of Anthony and Middlebrook, The Church Law Group, Grapevine, TX. www.churchlawgroup.com