Do you know the legal do's and don'ts to watch out for,
and who will check all content to make sure it complies with the law?

Union funds can not be used for internal politics.  Follow the same rules about internal politics when publishing a union web page, as when publishing a local union paper:

  • You are not legally allowed to use union funds in any way to promote or denounce any candidate for union office.  Such communications can only be done at individual or caucus expense, without using union facilities in any way.  They cannot be put on an official Union web page.  (You can, of course, include comments from leaders the local union has already elected, even when they're running for re-election, assuming they deal with legitimate union issues and are not open bids for re- election.)

  • Even where it doesn't concern people running for union offices, the web site is no place for attacks on any Union member, whether a leader or member.  The purpose of a web site is to strengthen and unify the union, not undermine it.  (Again, this doesn't mean you can't include respectful differences of opinion.)

Legal limits on promoting Union candidates to the public:  If you want to include anything about candidates for public office, you have the same obligations, and more:

  • Remember that the law is not the same for public communications as for internal union papers, letters, etc.  Federal law says you cannot use union dues money to promote to the public candidates for federal offices, like U.S.  Representative or Senator, even when they're endorsed by the Union.  (You can use union dues for internal communications on candidates and for public communications on political issues, news and get-out-the-vote, but not for openly promoting or denouncing announced candidates.)  The law is similar in many states for state and local offices, but varies considerably from state to state.  There are many fine lines here, so if you want to do any communication of this kind, please check with your District Representative to make sure you know your legal rights and limitations. 

Copyright law - The same laws that apply to printed publications also apply to the web - and since you're out in public, it's much easier for someone to find out you've "borrowed" their article or graphic without permission, for example (copyright violation).  You have to get permission before putting pictures and original articles from other web sites or publications on your web site. 

  • Although few web cases have made it through the courts, it's generally agreed that you have a right to put a link on your site to articles and other material on other web sites, without asking permission.  With a link you're only referring people to the site, not reprinting it. 

  • You have the right to reproduce facts and news articles, if they contain little or no original thought or opinion. 

  • You also have a "fair use" right to reproduce copyrighted material for news reporting, comment, criticism, or other one-time educational use, especially if you don't interfere with its commercial value.  But the No Electronic Theft Act, signed into law in December, 1997, is the first of several proposed laws that could make it more dangerous to use or re- use articles, photos or art on a web site without permission, even if you don't profit from that use. 

Being factual & libel law - The broad public access to a web site makes it doubly important to check all original facts and use only responsible sources for material posted on your web site -- there are people checking union web sites to find fault with them.  If you put something false on your site, your credibility could be damaged for good.  You could also violate libel law if you put something that's damaging or embarrassing about a person or company on your site without knowing whether it's true.  This includes material you take from other sources.  It is especially dangerous if you post something untrue, when you knew it wasn't true or didn't check it out. 

Visitor postings & chat rooms

The local union is responsible for everything on your site, including email messages you post.  If you sponsor chat rooms or allow visitors to post comments, you might be legally responsible for some libelous statements they make.  Although this new area is still being tested in the courts, you are, in any case, ethically responsible for everything that appears on the site. 

A union representative must monitor your chat rooms and message systems to weed out racist and other offensive (as well as potentially libelous) statements.  And remember: unless you restrict access, managers and union-busters have as much access as members, both to contribute statements and to use statements in ways that could damage the union. 

Setting up a member-only area with password protection would help protect such communications.  But keep in mind, that no site is absolutely secure, since passwords can be "borrowed."  Even member only sites should be used   with caution in posting confidential documents on-line.

Other issues

  • Web sites are not expensive to create, so it's unlikely a local union would need to resort to advertising to fund the site.  If your local considers including advertising however, the IRS could subject any money or service you accept to the "unrelated business" tax, requiring your Local to file a 990T form. 

  • Make sure you are aware of any guidelines or prohibitions to advertising in your Constitution or Union Policies and Procedures Manual.

  • Moreover, you should check out all advertisers and never accept advertising that could be illegal or that promotes issues rather than products or services.  Nor should you accept ads from persons or firms known to be anti-labor. 

Identifying web articles and permissions to reprint them

All original articles and graphics posted on your web site are considered copyrighted for five years, whether or not they carry a copyright symbol or are registered with the copyright office.  No one is supposed to legally download or reproduce them without the union's permission.  However, the information on most union affiliated sites are designed to be used, and policies should be posted that encourage the educational, non-profit use of original information and articles appearing on your site.  State the guidelines clearly, including what credit notice is necessary, and how to seek permission for other uses.  Whenever possible, the Union should be identified on each page of a web site so that the source of the material is clear, both when viewers are surfing the web and when they download your web pages.

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