Court of Appeals upholds firing over GIS search for ‘blonde’

The umbrella of content deemed Not Safe For Work (NSFW) got a bit bigger this week when the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a biology teacher’s termination over a Google Image Search for the word “blonde.”

While hair color is certainly a relative topic to biology, that didn’t protect teacher Robert Zellner’s job after he turned off safe search and his search term unsurprisingly turned up quite a few pornographic thumbnails, on which he did not click. Muddying the case is the fact that Zellner had just engaged in “constitutionally protected criticism” affecting his employer before the tenuous link leading to his termination was discovered.

Wired lays out the 67 seconds of searching that wound up costing Zellner his job:

First, Zellner disengaged the “safe search” filter. He then typed “blonde” into the Google search box. The search produced 20 “thumbnail” images, all of them pornographic, with links to more images within and outside the Google website. He then clicked to display the next 20 images. Zellner then clicked a link entitled “more of these” adjacent to images from www.ardentes.free.frblonde.com. When Zellner did so, another 20 pornographic “thumbnail” images were displayed on his monitor for a total of 17 seconds. Zellner did not click on any of the photographs displayed in his search. The entire incident took 67 seconds.

Sound like something that could feasibly happen to any employee of any company who uses Google for any purpose? Scarily, the court did, too, but ruled against him anyway:

“While it is abundantly clear that the relationship between the union and the district was contentious, combative and miserable, and that Zellner and the district played a central role in the relationship, Zellner ignores the discovery of his Nov. 6 Google image search,” the appeals court ruled. “It is undisputed that the search violated the district’s policy, that Zellner admitted that he performed the search, and that he knew he violated the policy. Accordingly, the school board had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason to terminate Zellner’s employment.”

The court also ruled that the firing was “unrelated” to Zellner’s union activity and critical comments made about the school district in the press. Do you think such a ruling gives employers too much leverage over tenured or otherwise protected employees? Should employees granted internet access at work be held responsible for what the web may or may not spew back at them before they’ve got a chance to close the page? Do we need a work-internet five second rule?

[Wired]

Comments