Lawyers say Canadians facing discipline at work over social media posts on Israel-Hamas war

By Faiza Amin and Meredith Bond

As fighting continues in the Middle East, thousands of people have been killed in the vicious Israel-Hamas war and many have turned to social media to voice their concerns, and opinions or to advocate.

Some lawyers tell CityNews, that since then, there’s been an increase in calls from Canadians who say they are being disciplined at work for their posts, setting off critical discussions on freedom of speech. 

The Canadian Muslim Legal Support Centre said they’ve seen a 300 per cent increase in calls over the last month. Over 134 Canadians have sought advice because they were either fired, potentially facing termination or suspended. Of those calls, 30 per cent were from non-Muslims.

Employers are also unsure of how to navigate these difficult situations.

“There’s no precedent like this. There’s nothing that has happened to this magnitude where people are advocating online and that’s bleeding into the workplace,” said Iman Mohamed, a lawyer and the executive director of the Canadian Muslim Legal Support Centre. “Anything you say can be held against you when it comes to your job. And that’s something that folks are very startled about.” 

A very public example that some have pointed to is MPP Sarah Jama being censured in provincial parliament over a post on social media that focused on the decades-long struggle of Palestinians and made no mention of the surprise attack by Hamas on Israel. She later posted an apology online with her original statement still up.

Jama was also removed from the NDP caucus, with leader Marit Stiles citing “a number of unilateral actions” that have undermined the party’s collective work and broken the trust of her colleagues as the reason.

In a few cases, Mohamed said employees got in trouble for accusing the Israeli government of committing genocide; and others for having posts that are considered taking the opposite position of the employer.

“It’s been news clippings. It’s been the graphic images that are showing kind of what’s happening on the ground. And then it gets into a space where it gets a little bit trickier when it comes to some of the stuff that they’re posting and how it’s being interpreted,” said Mohamed. “There’s two sides here that are being impacted.”   

She adds while your social media may be private, it doesn’t always prevent your employer from seeing them, adding that in some cases, employees have had their posts screenshotted and sent to management.

“So at the end of the day, it’s the fact that your full name and job are listed on LinkedIn. Anybody can find you, right? And if they are offended at what you’re doing, it’s an easy call or easy email to say, ‘Does this employee represent what your organization stands for?’,” explained Mohamed.

Lawyer Muneeza Sheikh said her office has also seen a significant uptick in calls from employees who took to social media with posts that aren’t considered hateful but may be seen as one-sided.

“You have employees that are advocating on a side that may not be aligned with their employers. And what happens is that employers are pulling the trigger quickly, and either disciplining or terminating, without giving employees the opportunity to remove the content or what they qualify as offending posts,” Sheikh explained.

She said employers have taken a hard line as to the implementation of their social media policies.

“There are a lot of scenarios where I think it’s appropriate for the employer to say, ‘Take it down, here’s a warning letter,’ and they should not be resorting to a termination, but they are,” Sheikh said.

Both lawyers say Canadians need better legal education. Sheikh added that an employer can take action in certain cases, including when it is affecting the business or if others are feeling discriminated against. 

Mohamed agreed.

“It’s one of those things where folks need to be mindful of what they are sharing and educating themselves with their policies in their workplaces and seeing what that says because, at the end of the day, things that can be posted can be viewed as a reputable damage to organizations. And that is kind of the grounds that they’re using to move forward when it comes to placing people on leave or when it comes to terminating.”

But otherwise, there is a right to freedom of expression in the workplace, explained Sheikh.

“Employers need to understand that they are exposing themselves to a significant amount of liability and probably are being saddled with a number of wrongful termination cases,” said Sheikh.

Mohamed said the true impact may not be known until some of these cases are processed through the human rights tribunal, and which usually takes two to three years.

“Right now we’re in this grey space where we’re trying to figure it out and we have these policies that are kind of guiding and general understanding of how employment law operates. But we’re not going to really know what the outcome is until the next few years.”

Earlier this week, a group calling themselves the Legal Professionals Against Retaliation shared an open letter to the legal community in response to what they say is a “pervasive repression of speech and scholarship on Palestinian liberation.”

“It is vital that the space for scholarship, speech and activism in defence of basic human rights be preserved,” read the letter, citing the incident with Jama as an example. 

It’s been signed by nearly 700 professionals and organizations including Vincent Wong, an Assistant Professor at the University of Windsor.

“What we’re really seeing is one of the most unprecedented speech suppression that we’ve seen in the legal profession,” said Wong. 

“People are being doxed, people are being harassed, subject to death threats. There have been calls to withdraw job offers, there have been calls to people’s employers to fire people who have issued pro-Palestinian statements and so on.”

“In this kind of horrifying, ongoing loss of life, we’re all struggling to find the language to understand these recent escalations while articulating our grief and our outrage,” Wong added.

In responding to the letter in a social media post, The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said, “We welcome debate. No one is silencing freedom of expression. But the law protects minorities, including the Jewish community from hate speech.”

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