To Post or Not to Post: Social Media, Informal Communication and Professional Obligations

When I started practicing law, a partner at my firm warned me that “you’re never not a lawyer”. He explained that there is no clear distinction between your personal and professional life. As a lawyer, regardless of whether you were “off duty” or not, your professional reputation can be negatively impacted by what you say and do.

This wisdom holds true more now than ever in a social media world. Having the ability to instantaneously transmit comments, pictures and videos to an unlimited audience can lead to dangerous results for professionals. We have seen this in a number of recent regulatory and court decisions.

Strom v Saskatchewan Registered Nurses Association

One of the early decisions highlighting the dangers of social media is Strom v Saskatchewan Registered Nurses Association, 2020 SKCA 112. Ms. Strom is a registered nurse. Her grandfather passed away at St. Joseph’s Health Center in Macklin, Saskatchewan. Ms. Strom posted comments on her personal Facebook page about the care her grandfather had received in his last days at St. Joseph’s. She also tweeted those comments to the Saskatchewan’s Minister of Health and the Saskatchewan opposition leader. Some of the employees at St. Joseph’s took exception to the posts and reported them to Ms. Strom’s professional regulator (the Saskatchewan Registered Nurses’ Association). Ms. Strom was charged with professional misconduct because the SRNA indicated that she was bound to follow proper channels, not negatively impact the reputation of the facility and staff, obtain all of the facts before making statements on social media, and not use her status as a registered nurse for personal purposes. Initially, Ms. Strom was found guilty of professional misconduct, which decision was upheld by the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench. The decision was though later overturned by the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal, in overturning the determination of professional misconduct, provided some clarification on when off-duty conduct can amount to professional misconduct. The general question is whether there is a sufficient nexus between the off-duty conduct and the profession. There was little evidence to suggest that Ms. Strom’s communications would have any impact on the profession or the public. Further, the discipline panel did not properly consider Ms. Strom’s right to freedom of expression. While freedom of expression is not absolute and can be abrogated to some extent based on the demands of the profession, the full contextual factors were not considered by the discipline committee.

The takeaways from Strom for professionals are that (1) off-duty communications can amount to professional misconduct if there is a sufficient nexus between the communications and the profession; (2) professionals should be free to engage in debate and dialogue, but professionals would be wise to consider tone, audience, and whether to identify as a professional.

Peterson v College of Psychologists of Ontario

Another well-publicized decision regarding off-duty, social media communication is Peterson v College of Psychologists of Ontario, 2023 ONSC 4685. This case involves the well-known author, Jordan Peterson. Dr. Peterson published several tweets and made remarks on the Joe Rogan podcast that were considered by individuals to be offensive. The decision outlines the remarks made in greater detail, but they include:

  1. Two tweets appearing to invite social media posters to kill themselves;
  2. Several insults directed at various individuals, including an indication that a doctor who had performed breast removal on the actor Elliot Page was a criminal; and
  3. Demeaning language regarding the appearance of a plus-sized model.

In his Twitter bio, Dr. Peterson referenced to his standing as a psychologist.

The investigation committee of the College of Psychologists of Ontario reviewed the complaint and tweets (along with Dr. Peterson’s responses) and concluded that the communications constituted professional misconduct. They found that the communications posed risk of harm to the public and could undermine public trust in the profession of psychology. The investigators required that Dr. Peterson enter a coaching program on professionalism in public statements.

The decision of the investigation committee was appealed by Dr. Peterson. That appeal was dismissed. The Court noted that Dr. Peterson’s remarks were not conversations with friends or colleagues, but public statements to broad audiences with a vast following. Further, the Court thought it was notable that Dr. Peterson was referring to himself as a clinical psychologist when making the statements. Dr. Peterson sought leave to appeal the decision to the Ontario Court of Appeal, but the leave request was denied.

The takeaways from the Peterson decision include: (1) identifying your profession while making off-duty statements is a consideration as to whether you have committed “professional” misconduct; (2) intemperate statements made to a broad audience are more likely to amount to professional misconduct; (3) the connection between the profession and the statements is a relevant consideration (eg. a psychologist, whose profession counsels those contemplating suicide, inferring that individuals kill themselves may impact the reputation of the profession).

Pitter v College of Nurses of Ontario

In Pitter v College of Nurses of Ontario, 2022 ONSC 5513, two nurses who spoke out on social media and at a public gathering against masks and vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic were charged with professional misconduct. Both identified themselves as registered nurses. One nurse’s comments included allegations that vaccines had the ability to track and manipulate thoughts and movement and were part of a conspiracy. The other nurse suggested that vaccines cause cancer and will impact fertility (in an effort to decrease the global population).

The nurses were cautioned for their statements (made during their “off-duty” time), which decision was upheld on appeal to the Court.

The takeaway from Pitter is that a professional can be cautioned for spreading misinformation, particularly if that misinformation is connected to the profession itself (eg. a health professional spreading misinformation about health-related matters).

Chaban v Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario

A more recent case is Chaban v Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario, 2024 ONSC 1075. This case involved a dentist making short Tiktok videos containing sexual innuendo. In one video, the dentist pulls down his mask and, smiling, licks his upper teeth while the music accompanying the video states “Would you like me to seduce you?”. The second video had a caption saying “when you give your patient an oral exam and see a circle pattern at the back of their throat.” Five seconds into the video, the dentist cocks his eyebrows and smiles.

The dental college found that these postings were inappropriate and required him to attend for an oral caution and complete a remedial program. He appealed that determination, which appeal was dismissed by the Court.

The takeaway from the Chaban case is that the reputation of the profession can be negatively impacted by making public, unprofessional communications.

Conclusion

Professionals must consider their reputations and the impact of the profession before publishing materials, particularly when they are identifying as professionals. There is no bright line between personal and professional lives when it comes to social media postings. So, a professional is wise to err on the side of caution.

Contacting a Lawyer on this Subject

Sean Sinclair is a partner with Robertson Stromberg LLP. His main areas of practice are Media Law / Defamation, Family Law, Estate Litigation, and Administrative Law. Contact Sean at 1-306-933-1367 or [email protected]. The above is for general information only, and not legal advice. Parties should always seek legal advice before taking action in specific situations.

Robertson Stromberg Lawyers Recognized in the 2024 Edition of the Canadian Legal Lexpert® Directory

Robertson Stromberg is proud to announce the 2024 edition of the Canadian Legal Lexpert® Directory has ranked 8 RS lawyers across 8 unique practice areas. Congratulations to the following lawyers for being named leading practitioners in their respective practice areas:

Misty S. Alexandre

M Kim Anderson, K.C.

Jared D. Epp

Jennifer D. Pereira, K.C.

Leslie W. Prosser, K.C.

Sean M. Sinclair

James D. Steele

Scott D. Waters

The Canadian Legal Lexpert Directory, published since 1997, is based on an extensive peer survey process. It includes profiles of leading practitioners across Canada in 66 practice areas and leading law firms in 41 practice areas.

The publication also features articles highlighting current legal issues and recent developments of importance written by leading practitioners across Canada. To learn more, click here.

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National Volunteer Week 2023: Highlighting our Community Involvement

From April 16 to 22, Canadians celebrate National Volunteer Week (NVW2023). This year’s theme is Volunteering Weaves Us Together, highlighting the importance of volunteering in our communities through actions that connect us with one another and strengthening our relationships.

At Robertson Stromberg LLP, we believe that it is our duty to use our skills and resources to help those who need it most. We are proud of our community involvement and active participation as volunteers with the local non-profit organizations that help make Saskatoon a great place to live. 

Our community partnerships have three central components – volunteer Board memberships, sponsorships and donations, and community involvement.

Board Memberships

Non-profit organizations are essential for building an engaged and collaborative community. Our lawyers serve on Boards as a way to support our community and to build capacity within organizations that often have limited resources.

As Board members, Robertson Stromberg lawyers volunteer their time – and provide governance expertise and oversight – to some of our community’s most active non-profit organizations and charities.

Our Board memberships include Big Brothers Big Sisters of Saskatoon and Area, Dress for Success Saskatoon, the Law Foundation of Saskatchewan, READ Saskatoon, Remai Modern art gallery and Station 20 West community centre. These organizations address issues ranging from food security in the city’s core neighbourhoods to inclusiveness and economic empowerment.

As Board members, Robertson Stromberg lawyers volunteer their time – and provide governance expertise and oversight – to some of our community’s most active non-profit organizations and charities.

Sponsorships and Donations

Robertson Stromberg recognizes that the backbone of any charitable organization is its volunteers. That’s why we commit our sponsorship dollars to assist non-profit organizations in building capacity to support those individuals who give their time to make our community great.

Some examples of organizations we support through sponsorships and donations are the Okihtcitawak Patrol Group (OPG), Prairie Hospice Society, Hockey Day in Saskatchewan, and the Secret Santa Foundation. The OPG is an Indigenous created and led community-based patrol group that services Saskatoon’s core neighbourhoods. Prairie Hospice Society is a charitable, non-profit community organization working to ensure access to compassionate, community-based, end-of-life support in Saskatoon. Through the Hockey Day in Saskatchewan initiative, communities have a chance to celebrate their rinks – and to preserve them – so future generations can enjoy the same experiences. The Secret Santa Foundation’s mandate is to provide a complete Christmas to 600 less fortunate Saskatoon families with children under 12.

Community Involvement

As a community-minded full-service law firm, Robertson Stromberg lawyers provide pro bono legal services to individuals and organizations across the province. Through the Public Legal Education Association of Saskatchewan (PLEA), our lawyers offer legal advice clinics at the Saskatoon Public Library. We also participate with Pro Bono Law Saskatchewan (PBLS) to provide free legal services to low-income provincial residents.

We also give back to our community in other ways. RS Partner Misty Alexandre is currently serving a 3-year term as a Director of Sask. Sports Inc. Partner Kirsten Hnatuk volunteers as a literacy coach with READ Saskatoon’s literacy program. And, partner Siobhan Morgan serves on the ArtSpace YXE board, which is committed to securing a long-term affordable space for artists in our community.

Let’s celebrate Canada’s volunteers together. #NVW2023 #WeavingUsTogether

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Congratulations to Misty S. Alexandre, M. Kim Anderson, K.C., Christopher J.H. Donald, K.C., Jared D. Epp, Tiffany M. Paulsen, K.C., Jennifer D. Pereira, K.C., Leslie W. Prosser, K.C., and Sean M. Sinclair, who have been recognized by their peers in the Canadian Legal Lexpert Directory for 2023.

The Canadian Legal Lexpert Directory, published since 1997, is based on an extensive peer survey process. It includes profiles of leading practitioners across Canada in more than 60 practice areas and leading law firms in more than 40 practice areas.

Misty S. Alexandre

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Christopher J.H. Donald, K.C.

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For more information about the educational session and to register, click here.

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