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BFTP: Blogging and a little common sense

A weekend Blue Skunk "feature" will be a revision of an old post. I'm calling this BFTP: Blast from the Past.  Original post January 26, 2007. I've been spending most of my "leisure" time this month working on presentations rather than writing blog posts, I'm afraid. Lucky for you, perhaps.

I serve at the pleasure of the school board.

That means I am not affiliated with any organization that bargains for me, offers legal protection to me, or stands beside me if my job is on the line. It's not so bad. Really...

But it was with a bit of trepidation that I read the following opinion:

Blogging 101 Prepared by the PSEA Legal Division January 2007

As a school employee, you must exercise extreme caution when you engage in blogging or other forms of internet communication. Keep in mind that your First Amendment rights can be limited by virtue of your position as a school employee.

If you blog or maintain a web page, you should adhere to the following tips:

  1. Minimize the risk associated with internet communication by limiting access to your blog or web page using a "friends only" or similar restrictive setting.
  2. If visitors can post to your blog or web page, monitor postings constantly and remove any that are inappropriate.
  3. Do not blog or post about your job duties, colleagues, supervisors or students. This will reduce the danger that you might disclose confidential information, share information about a private workplace complaint, or otherwise carelessly or unintentionally engage in speech which could affect your future employment.
  4. If you choose to blog or post as a citizen about a non-job related matter of public concern (i.e., the elections, terrorism or environmental issues) take care that what you say will not impede your employer's effectiveness or efficiency or otherwise disrupt the workplace.
  5. If you are blogging or posting about innocuous information (i.e., your favorite football team or family genealogy), you still must be careful not to engage in comments that could adversely affect your employer (i.e., damage the employer's reputation) or interfere with your ability to carry out your job duties.
  6. Do not blog or post about personal subjects (i.e., dating, romance, or drug or alcohol use). Your blog or web page should not contain any references to sexual subjects, or contain vulgar or profane language or graphics. If your blog or web page was a movie, it should be rated "G."
  7. Blogging and posting anonymously does not protect you. Names of bloggers, web page authors and other internet users can be discovered through litigation.
  8. Check to see if your employer has any policies regarding blogging or web pages. If so, you should review the policy with your PSEA Uniserv.

taped.jpgIn conclusion, you should be aware that if you blog or maintain a web page, you must use prudence and be extremely careful in your comments. You must give the necessary time and attention to the content of your blog or web page to make sure that it satisfies the general principles above.

Please contact your PSEA Uniserv Representative if you have any questions.

When I first started teaching back in the mid-70s, the district I worked for had two rules. The first was that you had to live in the district; the second was that you were to set a "moral" example. And the good folks in central Iowa had a pretty rigid definition of "moral." Not being able to drink a beer on my own front porch rankled me then and it rankles me now to think that my free speech rights might be abrogated if I were banned from blogging.

But then I remind myself that rights are always accompanied by responsibilities.

Here are some things I try to keep in mind when I write for the Blue Skunk. I honestly don't want Johnson vs. Board of Education being studied in school law classes someday.

  • Write assuming your boss is reading. That's good (and common) advice as far as it goes. But I know my wife, my mother and my daughter all read The Blue Skunk now and then. (My wife is lobbying me to change how I reference her from the LWW - Luckiest Woman in the Word - to the BBWWLMEWIJ - the Beautiful, Brilliant Woman Who Loves Me Even When I am a Jerk). I assume my co-workers read the blog, as might anyone for whom I might work for someday, either as a regular employee or a contractor. Somehow this doesn't really narrow the scope of what I want to write about, but it does force me to ask questions about language, taste, and approach. Every time I've wondered if I should put something of questionable taste in the blog and did, it's usually come back to bite me. A person can tell. Mostly.
  • Gripe globally; praise locally. I don't think anyone really fusses if you express your opinions about global warming, the Iraq War, or NCLB. But you will never catch me dissing a person who lives close enough that he could easily come by and TP my house. Nor would I say bad things about a person who I might then have to avoid at a conference. Even going negative, I try to make it about ideas, not people. I have to admit I am really lucky to be working in a school with people I genuinely think are pretty darned good and with whom I am proud to be associated. I don't agree with every decision made, but I know that the decision was made thoughtfully.
  • Write for edited publications. I've been writing professionally for almost 20 years and certainly on a continuous basis since I've been working for the Mankato Schools. A good deal of what I write is opinion and I've even written a several editorials for the state and local newspapers. My boss in the past has shared things I've written with the school board as a point of pride, I hope. Were the district now to react negatively to my blog, I believe it would have a difficult case showing that my writing impedes my employer's effectiveness or efficiency or otherwise disrupts the workplace, since it has not done so in the past. It would be a condemnation of a technology, not of a practice.
  • Write out of goodness. I have a difficult time believing that anything you write because you want to improve education, improve kids lives, or improve society will be counted against you. If you write out of negativity - to vent, to whine, to ridicule - yeah, you'll probably have problems. But I am guessing you were probably having problems at work before you started blogging if that is your blog content. In a workplace where dismissing someone for mediocre job performance or poor interpersonal skills is nearly impossible, supervisors are often looking for any legal means of firing people. If you are doing a good job at work, blog. If you aren't, don't blog.

It is our professional duty to share what works for us and ask for help when we are stymied. Blogs allow us to do both and it would be a crying damn shame if the advice of an overly cautious lawyer stopped this flow of information.

Earlier I mentioned that rights are accompanied by responsibilities. Another thing usually must come along as well - courage. Be brave - blog.

Putting this here from Dr. Scott McLeod so I can find it again:

The law basically says that as a public school teacher you can not be disciplined for your public speech UNLESS it

  1. pertained to a private matter rather than an issue that is of general public concern (i.e., of interest to the public), or
  2. seriously disrupted the working relationship between you and your peers / supervisors.

I’m paraphrasing / summarizing here but you get the gist. See also:

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