The University of Illinois will spend over $2 million because of its handling of a social media situation that might have been avoidable.

In July 2014, Steven Salaita, who was to begin a tenured $85,000-a-year faculty job at Illinois, made several virulent anti-Israel tweets, some of which belittled anti-Semitism and contained obscene language. University officials -- who received complaints about the posts -- responded by rescinding Salaita's job offer, a decision that the University's Board of Trustees then  affirmed.

Several months later, Salaita sued the school, arguing essentially that University of Illinois had no right to breach a contract with him when he was merely exercising his right to freedom of speech and academic freedom. The university countered that Dr. Salaita's behavior showed that he lacked "the judgment, temperament and thoughtfulness to serve as a member of our faculty in any capacity, but particularly to teach courses related to the Middle East," and that the hiring process had not been completed: "At no time was Dr. Salaita hired as a faculty member" since any offer "was at all times subject to the ultimate approval of the Board of Trustees."

The university may or may not have prevailed had the case gone to trial, but, according to published reports, it felt that settling would be its least costly option -- costs related to the case had already reached $1.3 million, and proceeding with hearings and a trial were likely to pile on significantly more expense.

Salaita's tweets were profane, highly offensive, and perhaps even libelous. But that is not the point. It wasn't just Salaita who paid a price -- his almost-employer is going to lose $2 million, and may pay additional hefty prices in terms of reputational damage, expended time, distracted employees, and other "softer" costs.

Could the University of Illinois have avoided the whole mess with clear social media policies and technology to ensure that people are aware of the policies at the time they use social media?

Imagine for a moment that a team of social media experts, cybersecurity and privacy pros, lawyers aware of relevant laws, and human resources managers had crafted clear, detailed social media usage rules for employees at the University of Illinois, that the school had required all new hires to accept them as a condition of employment, and that the school had provided Salatia with technology that warned him at the time that he was tweeting that what he was doing was against school policy. Might he have refrained from making the tweets? Might he have toned them down a bit? And had he continued and posted them as he did, would the school have had a much stronger case -- thereby eliminating the incentive for attorneys to take Salatia's case? Or giving the school grounds to countersue? Or, maybe, on the other hand, if the professionals had crafted a policy that had allowed him to express his views as he did -- for example, if the experts believed that the University had no right to demand that employees not make such posts -- would the school have refrained from rescinding its offer, and instead responded to his tweets in a different fashion?

Regardless of what the policies that you create stipulate, by creating proper social media policies -- and giving employees technology to warn them if they are violating the policies -- everyone involved might avoid a lot of aggravation. Keep in mind also that the Salatia case is hardly unique; to see many other examples of social media posts that have inflicted all sorts of damage, please see the SecureMySocial Twitter feed.

Published on: Nov 13, 2015