Can Social Networking Get Us Sued?

How to safeguard your church staff’s use of popular communication tools.

Like the rest of the world, many churches are turning to social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter to connect with people and promote outreaches and other church programs. And that’s what these tools were designed for-easy mass communication and media sharing. While this is a creative way to do business and connect with people inside and outside the church, using these social networks could cause some liability problems for your church if you do not set up the appropriate policies and monitoring procedures.

Public sites offer little security

There’s virtually no privacy for your staff when they use a social networking site. Anything posted online is available worldwide and never dies, even after a user deletes it. Even if you restrict the privacy settings or the page is password protected, there are ways to get into that document. Facebook, for example, retains copies of these according to its “Terms of Use Agreement.” Social networking sites are public and permanent, which means anything from them may cause you future harm.

The New York Times reported a case where jurors were mining information about the defendant online. After one juror confessed to this, the judge discovered eight of the other jurors were also looking the defendant up online. The judge declared the case a mistrial.

It’s easy to collect information on people these days. If your staff is going to talk about anything work-related on any webpage, that posting may create problems for your church, and, in some cases, a liability for your church. As a result, your church probably wants to avoid responsibility for everything they say. The best way to avoid liability for staff members’ postings to social media is to require them to agree that all postings will comply with the church’s terms and conditions for social networking by its staff members.

In addition to there being little to no privacy on these sites, information spreads easily-social networking can be a breeding ground for rumors and gossip. This is just another reason why your staff should agree to a social networking policy that includes a disclaimer for your church, among other things.

Sample terms and conditions

If anyone on your staff has a social networking web page (Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Plaxo, LinkedIn and similar sites) and they write about any work-related activities, they need to agree to the following terms and conditions:

  1. You agree to write under your own name.
  2. You may write about the church, your job, or some aspect of our business on a regular basis.
  3. You agree to include the following disclaimer on your site: “The opinions expressed on this site are the opinions of the participating user. ________________ Church acts only as a passive conduit for the online distribution and publication of user-submitted material, content and/ or links and expressly DOES NOT endorse any user-submitted material, content and/or links or assume any liability for any actions of the participating user.”
  4. You agree not to attack fellow employees, members, or vendors. You may disagree with the church and its officers, provided your tone is respectful and you do not resort to personal attacks.
  5. You agree not to disclose any sensitive, proprietary, confidential, or financial information about the church, other than what is publicly available.
  6. You may comment on other churches, but you agree to do so respectfully without ridiculing, defaming, or libeling them in any way.
  7. You agree not to post any material that is obscene, defamatory, profane, libelous, threatening, harassing, abusive, hateful or embarrassing to another person or any other person or entity.
  8. You agree not to post advertisements, solicitations and/ or market and/or promote any business or commercial interest, chain letters, or pyramid schemes.
  9. Your church should include this agreement in its employee handbook. Each employee should sign it as part of the new hire paperwork.
  10. My son-in-law is a youth minister at a new startup church in the Houston area. He uses Facebook extensively to communicate with those in his care. It has proven to be one of the best ways to communicate both needs and events. When Hurricane Ike devastated a church in Galveston, he used Facebook to secure volunteers to work at that church for a week. At the same time, he is careful to follow the above rules, especially avoiding the sharing of any confidential information. Though using it for a prayer request may be appropriate, he secures advanced approval from the subject of the prayer before posting it to Facebook.
Frank Sommerville is a both a CPA and attorney, and a longtime Editorial Advisor for Church Law & Tax.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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