South Dakota S.Ct Recognizes the Obvious: a Happy Birthday Message on Facebook Doesn’t Mean Much — Onnen v. Sioux Falls Independent School Dist.

[Post by Venkat Balasubramani]

Onnen v. Sioux Falls Independent School Dist., 2011 S.D. 45 (South Dakota; Aug. 3, 2011)

If any modern day communication is more inconsequential than a “happy birthday” post on Facebook, I’m not sure what is. We’ve all seen, at one time or another, Facebook’s reminder that it’s our acquaintance or friend’s birthday and have taken the two seconds out of our busy web-surfing schedule to wish the person happy birthday. Both the sender and recipient know full well that this is about the most impersonal birthday gesture possible in modern day society. Still, that was one of the issues in this appeal to the South Dakota State Supreme Court.

Onnen worked at Southeast Technical Institute, a part of Sioux Falls School District. The School District found some irregularities in Onnen’s conferral of degrees on students who had not adequately completed course requirements. STI conducted an investigation and recommended termination. The Sioux Falls School District Board agreed with this recommendation. Onnen disagreed, arguing that he was wrongfully terminated. He appealed to the Circuit Court who also rejected his contentions. After trial, Onnen argued that the Circuit Judge should have recused himself because:

[The Circuit Judge] received from a major witness . . . for the Defendant . . . a message on [the judge's] Facebook page wishing [the judge] happy birthday in Czech.

The judge received the message during the trial but before the witness testified. The big question: was the message was an improper “ex parte communication”?

The South Dakota State Supreme Court concluded that the message was not an “ex parte communication” because it did not “concern a pending or impending proceeding.” In any event, the communication was not “invited” by the judge, and the judge did not acknowledge or respond to it:

Judge Srstka noted that the post was only one of many and that he did not personally know [the witness]. Furthermore, Judge Srstka did not connect the post [to the witness] even after he testified. Judge Srstka also stated that [the message] did not affect [his] decision-making, as [he] did not know it occurred.

The court says in different words what I said at the beginning of the post: a Facebook birthday greeting is a fairly meaningless communication. The judge in question did not even know the witness; nor did it register with the judge that the witness had sent him a happy birthday greeting on Facebook.

Kudos to Judge Srskta for having a Facebook page and to the South Dakota State Supreme Court for not taking it too seriously.

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Is the Florida Bar Taking Facebook Friendship Too Seriously?