Navigating Online Defamation: What BC Employees Should Know about Voicing Opinions on Employers

Navigating Online Defamation: What BC Employees Should Know about Voicing Opinions on Employers

In today’s digital age, social media has become a common outlet for employees to express opinions and grievances about their employers. Understanding the legal boundaries between fair comment and online defamation is crucial, especially under British Columbia laws. This article provides guidance on what employees can and cannot say online without risking legal repercussions, including potential termination.

“But I Was Just Venting”

Work can be stressful, leading even the happiest employees to vent their frustrations. Previously, such venting might have been confined to private conversations. Today, the internet allows these grievances to be shared publicly, where a much broader audience can see them. This public nature of online comments can have significant implications for both employees and employers.

Fair Comment vs. Job Security

It’s important to distinguish between the fair comment defence in defamation lawsuits and the risk of job termination for online comments. The fair comment defence can protect an employee from a defamation lawsuit but does not shield them from potential termination.

Fair Comment Defense

Fair comment is a legal defence in defamation cases that allows individuals to express opinions on matters of public interest without fear of legal repercussions. In British Columbia, this defence is rooted in freedom of expression, protected under Section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. To claim fair comment, the following criteria must be met:

  • Public Interest: The comment must be on a matter affecting the community at large.
  • Basis in Fact: The opinion must be based on facts that are either true or substantially true.
  • Recognizable as Opinion: The statement must be an opinion, not a statement of fact.
  • Lack of Malice: The comment must be made without intent to harm or with reckless disregard for the truth.

Job Security

However, fair comment does not protect employees from termination. Employers in BC can terminate employees either for cause, if the context permits, or without cause. A negative online post could be grounds for termination. Depending on the nature and publicity of the comments, it could even be just cause for termination without notice. Only views rooted in human rights protections (e.g., religious or political beliefs) might protect an employee’s job.

What Is Online Defamation?

Online defamation involves making a false statement that harms another person’s reputation. In BC, defamation can be categorized into two forms: libel (written defamation) and slander (spoken defamation). For a statement to be considered defamatory, it must be false, harm the employer’s reputation, and be communicated to at least one person other than the employer.

Employment Consequences

When posting comments about their employers online, employees must navigate the fine line between fair comment and defamation. Key considerations include:

  • Context and Public Interest: Comments on public interest issues may be protected, while personal grievances are less likely to be.
  • Factual Basis: Ensure opinions are based on verifiable facts.
  • Clarity of Opinion: Frame statements clearly as opinions, not facts.
  • Avoiding Malice: Avoid making statements with intent to harm the employer’s reputation.

Legal Protections and Consequences

BC’s legal framework protects freedom of expression and addresses defamation. Employees who engage in online defamation can face serious legal consequences, including job loss and lawsuits for damages. Employers can terminate employees either for cause or without cause, and negative online posts could justify termination.

Conversely, employers should respect employees’ rights to express legitimate opinions on matters of public interest. Fostering open communication and addressing legitimate concerns can help mitigate negative online discourse.

In Closing

Understanding the distinction between fair comment and defamation is crucial for employees discussing their employers online. While the fair comment defence protects against defamation lawsuits, it does not protect against termination. Employees should express their views responsibly to avoid legal and employment risks. For more information, refer to the BC Laws Libel and Slander Act [RSBC 1996] Chapter 263.

If You Have Questions, We Can Help

If you’re a business owner or employee in British Columbia and have questions about online defamation, fair comment and company policies, our Human Resources Consultant and Employment Law Experts can help. Contact us today at (604) 359-1627 or reach out to us online.