Should This Louisiana TV Reporter Be Fired for Responding to Racists on Facebook?

How far is too far when it comes to corporate social-media policing? That's the question at the heart of a new controversy in which a black TV meteorologist in Louisiana, Rhonda Lee, was fired for responding—calmly, it should be said—to racist comments on her station's Facebook page, one of which was about her appearance.

On October 1, a man named Emmitt Vascocu wrote:

the black lady that does the news is a very nice lady.the only thing is she needs to wear a wig or grow some more hair. im not sure if she is a cancer patient. but still its not something myself that i think looks good on tv. what about letting someone a male have waist long hair do the news.what about that

Lee responded five days later (emphasis mine):

Hello Emmitt— I am the "black lady" to which you are referring. My name is Rhonda Lee. Nice to meet you. I am sorry you don't like my ethnic hair. And no I don't have cancer. I'm a non-smoking, 5'3, 121 lbs, 25+ mile a week running, 37.5 year old woman, and I'm in perfectly healthy physical condition.

I am very proud of my African-American ancestry which includes my hair. For your edification: traditionally our hair doesn't grow downward. It grows upward. Many Black women use strong straightening agents in order to achieve a more European grade of hair and that is their choice. However in my case I don't find it necessary. I'm very proud of who I am and the standard of beauty I display. Women come in all shapes, sizes, nationalities, and levels of beauty. Showing little girls that being comfortable in the skin and HAIR God gave me is my contribution to society. Little girls (and boys for that matter) need to see that what you look like isn't a reason to not achieve their goals.

Conforming to one standard isn't what being American is about and I hope you can embrace that.

Thank you for your comment and have a great weekend and thank for watching.

About a month later, on November 14, another viewer, Kenny Moreland, chimed in on KTBS's Facebook page to express frustration that a KTBS video of a charity event had too many black children in it:

Not to start any trouble, because I think that the annual 'Three Minute Smile' is a great function and I love to see kids so happy. Am I the only one that has noticed that this year, all the kids, lets say, are people of color? This is Channel 3, not KSLA, the 'Project Pride' network, that might as well be part of the BET Channel. Did KTBS slip up on a news story, and owe S'port's criminal mayor Cedric, a favor? Seems like some racism going on to me. Just saying.....

This time, reports the Maynard Institute's Richard Prince, Lee responded the next day, and a bit less cheerily this time:

I'm not sure I understand your comment, '...this is Channel 3 not KSLA...' What are you trying to say?

The children are picked at random. So there goes your theory that they are selected for their color. I would like to think it doesn't matter who the child is. If you truly just want to see the kids happy your message had a funny way of showing it.

Happy holidays.—Met. Rhonda Lee

Lee told Prince that she eventually asked her bosses to remove the second racist posting, but that they refused and then admonished her for responding to viewer comments at all. Not long after that, Lee was fired. "They told me the policy I violated isn't written down, but was mentioned in a newsroom meeting about a month-and-a-half prior. A meeting I didn't attend," said Lee. "So when I asked what rule did I break there isn't anything to point to."

I emailed KTBS Station Manager George Sirven, who responded with the following statement and a copy of an email Sirven claims Lee received back in August. As you can see, that email, an informal "Social Media Best Practices policy," explains that employees are not to respond to viewer complaints on Facebook. If they do respond, the note continues, "there is only one proper response," which is to direct the viewer to call an employee at the station whose job is fielding complaints:

Typically this station does not comment on personnel matters, but due to the publicity and interest about this issue, the station has included the following statement.

On November 28, 2012, KTBS dismissed two employees for repeated violation of the station's written procedure. We can confirm that Rhonda Lee was one of the employees. Another employee was a white male reporter who was an eight year veteran of the station. The policy they violated provided a specific procedure for responding to viewer comments on the official KTBS Facebook page. Included is an email that was sent to all new department employees informing them of this procedure. This procedure is based on advice from national experts and commonly used by national broadcast and cable networks and local television stations across the country.

Unfortunately, television personalities have long been subject to harsh criticism and negative viewer comments about their appearance and performance. If harsh viewer comments are posted on the station's official website, there is a specific procedure to follow.

Ms. Rhonda Lee was let go for repeatedly violating that procedure and after being warned multiple times of the consequences if her behavior continued. Rhonda Lee was not dismissed for her appearance or defending her appearance. She was fired for continuing to violate company procedure.

Should This Louisiana TV Reporter Be Fired for Responding to Racists on Facebook?

Richard Prince notes that Lee filed a discrimination lawsuit against another former employer, Austin's KXAN, in May of this year, claiming that, among other things, she was "repeatedly subjected to crude and insensitive remarks about her race." Later, KXAN fired Lee. At the time of the KXAN suit, Lee was already at KTBS, where she ended up working for about 11 months before being fired a second time.

There's no word yet on whether Lee plans on bringing a lawsuit in this latest case, but in the meantime, the question becomes this: At what point does a company's "stay mum" social-media policy become injurious to an employee's sense of dignity? And if an employee does respond against its company's wishes, should level, reasoned responses like Lee's merit termination?

Regardless, the Lee story seems to be further evidence that many companies still have no idea how to navigate the complexities of social media, despite obviously drinking the Kool-Aid when it comes to the idea that social media is an integral part of success nowadays. The result is a company getting a Facebook page in order to facilitate community engagement while simultaneously hampering its employees from engaging even slightly with that community. Essentially, they're stripping all the "social" out of "social media," and then firing employees who push back at all against their archaic policy.