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Public employees may have right to run web site critical of employer

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

The Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC) has taken the position that, like the federal National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), it can order an employee to be reinstated if a public employer punished him for speaking publicly about workplace issues.

Both agencies say if an employee is punished for speaking out, it’s up to the employer to prove it would have taken the same disciplinary action if the employee hadn’t been involved in a protected activity such as speaking out on workplace conditions.

Now, the Court of Appeals of Michigan has upheld MERC’s order in a case involving a web site.

Recent case: John Bennett, a police officer with the city of Detroit, launched an Internet web site, www.firejerryo.com, to provide a forum for police officers to express concerns regarding the police department and as a source of information for the community.

The “Jerry” in the site’s name is Jerry Oliver, former chief of the Detroit Police Department. Oliver apparently doesn’t take criticism well because he suspended Bennett with pay and threatened to suspend him without pay if he didn’t shut down the web site.

The Detroit Police Officer’s Association then filed a MERC petition asking for a finding that the police department violated Michigan law by trying to get the web site shut down. Meanwhile the police department tried to have Bennett fired for “conduct unbecoming an officer.” MERC said Bennett’s activities were protected under the Public Employment Relations Act and ordered the department to stop disciplinary action.

The police department appealed. The Court of Appeals of Michigan upheld MERC’s order, reasoning that the information on the web site constituted free speech and legitimate discussion of workplace issues. Unless the police department could point to specific sections that were objectionable, ordering the entire web site shut down was not appropriate. (City of Detroit v. Detroit Police Officers Association, et al., No. 268278, Court of Appeals of Michigan, 2007)

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