Lessons from the Choom gang: Don't air your dirty laundry

Children and adults should take a lesson from the airing of President Obama and Mitt Romney's dirty underwear and think twice before the tweet or post or share.

WASHINGTON, May 29, 2012 – As Barack Obama and Mitt Romney move forward in their quest to win the 2012 presidential elections, they have and will more likely ask voters to discount their “boy days” shenanigans as irrelevant to the men they are now and how they will run the country.

News from the group called “the Choom Gang,” are revealed in an upcoming book by David Maraniss, “Barack Obama: The Story.” Obama’s high school buddies detail their time smoking marijuana, called “choom” for slang. There are also less than admirable reports that Mitt Romney bullied a classmate as a teen, calling him names and cutting the other teen’s hair against his will.

Both these incidents bring forward the opportunity for parents to once again show their children that the activities they engage in now, especially illegal ones such as taking drugs, could have consequences on their future.  Consequences that are heightened by the indiscriminate use of social media.

Young people posting images of illegal activities such as underage drinking and smoking can have an impact on their educational and employment prospects. Employers and college admission boards are utilizing online social media as a factor before granting interviews and hiring.

These days we are seeing more cases of job seekers denied employment or students denied entry into schools, even expelled from schools they currently attend, for photos or statements they post in social media. An employer who makes a decision based on social media postings is not trampling on that individuals 1st amendment rights as much as it is about an employer choosing not to hire an individual who gets “so wasted” over the weekend he may not make it to work on Monday morning.

Over the years there have been numerous cases involving social media that have gone to court. A Maryland governmental department actually required applicants to provide Facebook and email passwords.  The number of instances of private sector employers making that demand are unknown.

The Duke Law journal reveals that as of November 2011, there were 647 lawsuits where social media evidence came into play.  Of the list, 326 involved Myspace, 262 involved Facebook , 49 Twitter and 37 LinkedIn.  This is not just a U.S. issue; across the pond there are instances of people actually being jailed for making racist and harassing comments in social media.  Sweet & Maxwell, legal information specialists, report the number of defamation court cases in the UK in which the subject was allegedly defamed on blogs or on social media jumped from seven to 16 from May 2011 to May 2012.

Parents would be wise to sit down and talk to their children about the long term pitfalls of social media and how to avoid having their online sharing affect their real world lives, both today and twenty or thirty years from now.

To help parents show their teens and young adults examples, here is a sample listing of some of the more well-known or egregious ways social media is disrupting people’s lives.

January 2009: Joke death threats  - A Minnesota court is currently trying to determine whether the University of Minnesota wrongfully disciplined Amanda Tatro for Facebook postings starting in 2009 including postings that referenced stabbing a certain someone in the throat and updating her “death list,” among other things.

March 2009:  Negative Tweet about an employer  - Conor Riley had a job offer rescinded when she tweeted, “Cisco just offered me a job! Now I have to weigh the utility of a fatty paycheck against the daily commute to San Jose and hating the work.”

March 2009: Defamation - Courtney Love is defending herself in a defamation lawsuit over tweets, starting in March 2009, in a series of tirades on Twitter against fashion designer Dawn Simorangkir, who was demanding payment for a couple thousand dollars’ worth of clothes she said Love owed her. THR, Esq. notes that “[Love] announced that Simorangkir was a drug-pushing prostitute with a history of assault and battery who lost custody of her own child and capitalized on Love’s own fame before stealing from her. ‘She has received a VAST amount of money from me over 40,000 dollars and I do not make people famous and get raped TOO!’”

October 2009: Facebook relationship status  - When trying to determine if a woman and man were still married and thus likely the parents of a child who another man claimed was his, the court considered the fact that on the woman’s Facebook status she listed herself as Separated and Divorced on various occasions, thus proving that she was most likely not still with her husband as she had claimed.

May 2011: Impersonating another person online - A judge ruled it was criminal for impersonating another person on Facebook. The defendant was making postings suggesting a person that he was impersonating was gay and drug user. As the person being impersonated was a Pastor, the chances of it causing him to lose his job are high.

January 2011: Posting grotesque or private photos - An OB/GYN nursing student expelled for posting a photo of herself with a human placenta on Facebook was permitted to return after proving that her teacher allowed her to take the photo in the first place.

February 2011: Criticism of Boss  - A court determined that an employer violated an employee’s First Amendment rights when he fired her for the Facebook status updates including one where she wrote, “So this week not going so good bad stuff all around.”

February 2011:  Tagging yourself in rowdy, drunk and half naked photos Users have no right to grant permission first before you are tagged, a court stated, in a case where a woman wanted to stop her husband from using photos of their tagged daughter drinking posted to social media in a custody case.

February 2011: Fraud to get social benefits - To determine whether a litigant was lying about her illness in a claim for social security benefits, the judge in the case found Facebook images of the claimant smoking and threw out her case. 

May 2011- Juror making contact with defendant - Joanne Fraill was jailed in the UK for making contact with the defendant in a multi–million–pound trial in which she was a juror. Fraill, who was jailed for eight months in June, was the first person to be prosecuted for contempt of court involving the Internet in the UK.

August 2011: Twitter Stalking - A NY court found that a man sending thousands of vulgar and threatening Twitter messages about a female Buddhist leader including  “Do the world a favor and go kill yourself. P.S. Have a nice day” was not unconstitutional or in violation of cyber-stalking laws.

The court found the tweets were protected as speech addressing religious matters

October 2011: Retain passwords after leaving a job - A fired employee had to return the social media username and passwords to former boss.

December 2011: Tweeting about drinking on the job –  Aides for Congressional Rep. Rick Larsen were fired after tweeting about drinking on the job and sayhing bad things about Larsen.

December 2011: Absconding with a client’s fame - Adorian Deck, a high school senior and creator of @OMGFacts, handed over his Twitter account which had amassed some 300,000 followers to social media mogul Emerson Spartz after Spartz created an associated MySpace account and grew the account to 1.9 million followers.

January 2012:  Callous comments following tragic death - The day after a student drowned at the beach while on a field trip, a fifth grade teacher updated her Facebook status to say, “[a]fter today, I am thinking the beach sounds like a wonderful idea for my 5th graders! I HATE THEIR GUTS! They are the devils (sic) spawn! “ – He was fired, getting her job back after a court ruled a firing was too harsh a penalty.

January 2012: Anonymous YouTube videos - A court declared that the Ron Paul for President Campaign did not have the right to know who posted an anonymous video saying mean things about then opponent and fellow presidential candidate Jon Huntsman because he didn’t meet the standards for discovery.

February 2012: Family members posting hideous childhood photos on Facebook - A man sued his uncle for posting family photos and writing comments the man described as mean, but the court ruled it did not arise to the level of harassment and threw the case out.

May 2012: The “Like” of a bosses opponent - A Court said that a sheriff was wrong to fire employees for “liking” the Facebook page of his opponent Sheriff B. J. Roberts of Hampton. Employees were fired for supporting the incumbent sheriff’s opponent in his 2009 re-election bid, claiming it was a political statement.

The Judge said, however, that clicking a button doesn’t amount to actual statements and thus are not protected by the First Amendment.  

May 2012:  Racist Tweets - A Welsh student was jailed for making racist and offensive comments on Twitter following the on-field collapse of soccer player Fabrice Muamba. He tweeted: “LOL, F&*^ Muamba. He’s dead.” Other Twitter users immediately criticized Stacey, prompting him to post further offensive and racist comments.

He branded some people who censured him as “wogs” and told one to “go pick some cotton”. After serving 56 days in jail, Liam Stacey, was expelled for a year from Swansea University where he was a senior biology student.

Mother always told you to wear clean underpants in case you were in an accident. Young, and not so young, persons should use the same caution when it comes to sharing information better left private on line.  You don’t want the world, or perspective employers, college admission offices, or legal opponents, seeing your dirty underwear. 


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Jeneba Ghatt
Jeneba Jalloh Ghatt is a former journalist turned lawyer turned citizen journalist. Currently, she manages her boutique communications law firm, where she has represented small businesses and nationally-recognized civil and consumer rights organizations before the United States Supreme Court, federal courts and the FCC. She also covers the White House and US Congress for the online news site Politic365.com while authoring her own influential blog JenebaSpeaks.com which is frequently accessed by top policy makers and think tanks, and the investment community. JenebaSpeaks.com focuses on the intersection of politics and technology and reports on policies and rules in the communications and tech sector.
 
Before opening her law firm, The Ghatt Law Group, which was the first communications firm owned by women and minorities, Jeneba regulated Comcast and Starpower as the Assistant General Counsel for the District of Columbia's Office of Cable Television and Telecommunications, and at one point was the only communications regulatory attorney in the entire city. She is founding member and policy chair for a new trade association, the National Association of Multicultural Digital Entrepreneurs and provides advice and counsel to new businesses in the tech industry, particularly small businesses owned by women and minorities.

Born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, but raised in the United States by her Catholic mom and Muslim dad, she started her college career creating web content for one of the earliest websites in history while working part time for the University of Maryland's Office of Technology. Following her graduation from the Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, she founded and co-wrote one of the earliest blogs and since then has gone on to found and author six different widely read and influential blogs. She was one of only 22 writers and bloggers to attend the first White House summit for African American media.
 
She holds a Certificate in Communications Law Studies from Catholic; a Juris Doctor from there as well, and a Master of Law in advocacy degree from the Georgetown University Law Center where she first taught and lectured as a Staff Attorney and Graduate fellow at that law school's Institute for Public Representation. She later went on to teach Media Law at the University of Maryland at College Park and guest lecture at Yale Law School and Penn State University, College of Telecommunications. She is well skilled and versed with social media and manages several Twitter, Facebook, Linked In accounts and groups.
 
She sits on the board of several non profits and trade associations.

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