A recent appellate court ruling confirmed once again the power of employment policies (not to mention the limitless poor judgment of employees when it comes to work computers). In Zellner v. Herrick, the plaintiff's employer, a school district, had a strict computer usage policy which prohibited accessing pornography on work computers. The plaintiff, a high school biology teacher and former teacher's union president, was terminated following the discovery of pornography on his work computer. Specifically, the school determined that the plaintiff disabled the safe search filter, searched for "blonde" on Google, and proceeded to view 40 or so pornographic images that resulted from the search over the course of 67 seconds. The plaintiff did not dispute this. He was terminated, and his termination was upheld following several rounds of grievance proceedings. Thereafter, he filed suit, alleging that the school district terminated his employment in violation of the First Amendment due to his union activities.
Although the school district and the union had a contentious relationship, and the plaintiff was very active in the union, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it was undisputed that his search for and viewing of pornography violated the school district's policy, and that the plaintiff was unable to show that this was a pretext for his termination.
What does this mean for you? Employers should review their computer usage policies and strictly enforce such policies. Courts are more likely to uphold and find non-discriminatory employment decisions grounded in clearly worded and strictly enforced employment policies.