LINCOLN — When a police officer made a veiled threat against members of the public and his fellow shift officers on Facebook, word got back to the station.
To investigate just such a rumor two years ago, the top shields at the Grand Island Police Department enlisted the help of another officer who was a Facebook “friend” of the disgruntled employee, Chief Steve Lamken said. That means the cooperating employee had access to the targeted officer's web page that his supervisors did not have.
Sure enough, they found the officer had posted the derogatory statements about citizens and fellow officers, including that he didn't care if they died. The officer was disciplined, the chief said, declining to explain if that meant he lost his position.
Under a bill heard Monday by the Legislature's Business and Labor Committee, such social media investigations could open the department to a lawsuit, Lamken said.
O'Neill State Sen. Tyson Larson introduced Legislative Bill 58 to prevent snooping employers from making workers or job applicants disclose social media passwords. Those employees who refuse and lose their positions would be allowed to pursue a lawsuit.
“Just because it's on the Internet doesn't mean they lose their expectation of privacy,” Larson said.
The bill also would bar employers from going to a third party with access to the targeted employee's page to do the snooping for them.
The proposal is not intended to shield employees from criminal investigations, nor would it prevent employers from gaining access to social media pages if they believed the employee took proprietary information from work.
Such limits should protect employers from situations like what occurred in Grand Island, Larson said.
The police chief was the only person to testify in opposition to the bill. Representatives from three organizations, the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Nebraska Realtors Association and the League of Nebraska Municipalities, took a neutral position, although they raised concerns about how the bill might affect employers.
Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha questioned whether employees and job applicants really need such protections when they can simply choose not to sign up for social media accounts.
“If I want to protect my privacy, there already is a remedy for that,” he said.
Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, chairman of the committee, said he's concerned the bill could open employers to additional liability if they hired an employee without being aware of pertinent information.
For example, Lathrop said, what if a school teacher is accused of abusing a student and it's later learned she had inappropriate photos of teenagers on her Facebook page before she was hired?
Larson said it would be impossible to respond to every concern, but this bill is intended to strike a balance while protecting the privacy rights of individuals. Six other states have some similar laws on the books.
Testifying in favor of the bill were representatives of the Nebraska State Education Association and the American Civil Liberties Union-Nebraska.
Alan Peterson with the ACLU said the bill could help protect employers from learning information about an applicant the law already bars them from asking. So, it could actually save them from actions that could lead to potential lawsuits.
“When we take a job, we give up a lot,” he said. “But we don't turn over, shouldn't have to turn over, our whole personal lives.”
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Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported who Grand Island Police Chief Steve Lamken testified was the target of the derogatory comments.