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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Tale of Two Progressive Bloggers

Writing a progressive blog while working at an Alabama university can be dangerous business. It can be particularly dangerous if your blog ventures beyond the realm of opinion and into the world of citizen journalism

Legal Schnauzer has dared to wade deeply in the citizen-journalism waters, and that probably explains why I no longer am employed at UAB and one of my former coworker is.

I raised this issue in a recent post about my former UAB Periodicals colleague Doug Gillett, who got into some blog-related hot water back in 2004 and received no more than a warning. I, unlike Doug, did not violate UAB policy and was fired. As you probably have guessed, I detect a slight injustice at work here. (The injustice being that I was fired, or disciplined at all for that matter, not that Doug was retained. Doug is a great guy, and I wholeheartedly supported UAB's decision to keep him on board.)

Anyway, I mentioned in the earlier post on this subject that The Birmingham News articles about Doug Gillett's blog-related problems at UAB evidently are not online.

But in a Legal Schnauzer exclusive, we have those stories--and you will see that the News and its right-wing honchos did a splendid job of turning a non-story into quite an event. The News' stories were picked up by Associated Press and run in God only knows how many newspapers around the country.

Before we get into the actual stories, let's consider the news judgment of The Birmingham News. For about five or six years, News editor Tom Scarritt has had access to information that shows irrefutable corruption among Republican judges in Alabama state courts. This includes judges on appellate courts that have jurisdiction over every person in the state. Scarritt has fastidiously ignored that story.

But a 25-ish UAB employee, who happens to be a Democrat and John Kerry supporter, writes a few blog posts and politically oriented e-mails on his work computer? By golly, that merits two stories and an editorial from our friends at the News. No one disputes that Doug was technically in the wrong here. But is that really a news story in comparison to the gross judicial corruption the mainstream media consistently ignores?

Anyway, on to the stories. First, we have the initial story, "broken" by reporter Thomas
Spencer:


UAB EDITOR'S BLOG RAISES LEGAL QUESTIONS
BY THOMAS SPENCER
News staff writer

Doug Gillett, an editor with UAB's creative services department, is passionate about his politics. He has his own Internet blog, titled "George W. Bush, Will You Please Go Now?!," and is the third-most prolific--and one of the most passionate--contributors to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Politics 101 blog.

By noon Thursday, Gillett had generated and posted to the Internet more than 800 words of commentary, pictures and links to articles on his own blog and contributed almost 700 words to the running arguments on Politics 101.

The problem is that he was at work at the time. He's a state employee and was using a UAB computer, and his activities could run him afoul of state elections and ethics laws.

Election law prohibits public employees from using "state, county or city funds, property or time, for any political activities." The state ethics law has a similar prohibition.
Gillett said Thursday that he didn't realize his activities might violate the law.
"Sorry. I did not," Gillett said. "I apologize."
University of Alabama at Birmingham spokeswoman Dale Turnbough said Thursday Gillett will face disciplinary action. "UAB has clear policies against using university time and resources for partisan politics or non-university business and takes violation of those policies seriously," Turnbough said. "We began to look into this matter as soon as it was brought to our attention today, and we will follow up with appropriate disciplinary action in a timely fashion as soon as we conclude our review."

Blogs, short for Web logs, resemble electronic diaries, usually informal in tone but souped up with photos and Web links. Increasingly popular, blogs have been used by war correspondents, political reporters, and ordinary citizens with something to say about any sort of subject.
Jim Sumner, executive director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, said the commission hasn't received any complaints about on-the-job blogs, but questions are bound to arise as what was once water cooler conversation is overtaken by email and Internet communication.

Sumner said it would be unenforceable and undesirable to squelch all political speech among state employees during work hours.

"We have to strike a balance," Sumner said. "If it is on a limited basis, that is one thing."
Gillett's postings are voluminous, partisan, well-informed, sometimes funny, and sometimes strident. He's been at it since last July. Thursday, Gillett posted three times to the AJC site before noon, sparring with rival conservative poster "vikter," discussing nuclear inspections and Catholic communion. On his own blog between 8 a.m. and 11:27 a.m., Gillett skewered Republicans President Bush and U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama and praised Democrats John Kerry and John Edwards.

Gillett's blog can be found at georgemustgo.blogspot.com.


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Now we have the News' editorial on the subject. Yep, you heard that right, this story merited an opinion from the high-minded types at our local rag:


BLOGGING AWAY

UAB EMPLOYEE FINDS ETHICS PROBLEM IN CYBERSPACE

A cover-to-cover reading of the Code of Alabama shouldn't be required for government workers to know it's wrong to use taxpayer resources to engage in a side job, a hobby or a political campaign.
Sure, there are laws pertaining to abuse of public property. But it's so obviously improper that all public employees ought to know better even if they never read the specific prohibitions.
Consider the case of Doug Gillett.

Gillett, an editor with UAB's creative services department, got into a jam this past week when it was disclosed that he'd been heavily involved in on-the-job politicking.

The fact that his political activities were postings on the Internet shouldn't matter. It's also beside the point that Gillett's blogging strongly criticized President George Bush. What matters is that Gillett was using a UAB computer--and his work time--to engage in his political rants.

Gillett says he was unaware that state election laws and ethics laws prohibit government funds, property and time from being used for political activity. But his denials and apologies ring hollow.

For one thing, UAB, like virtually every business, has clear policies barring workers from using equipment or work time for outside activities. Many companies have specific policies addressing the Internet and e-mail. It's hard to imagine a modern-day worker who hasn't gotten a memo about it.
But for the sake of argument, say Gillett was an exception. You'd think he'd still be aware that somebody was paying him to do a job and that he was provided a computer so he could do that job--not so he could update his Web log and sound off on other blogs.
As scandals go, Gillett's isn't the worst to befall Alabama by far. But what Gillett did is the type of misconduct that carries big consequences.
These little affronts don't go unnoticed by taxpayers--and they're certainly not forgotten when some government type comes around asking for more money. Alabamians might not remember the details, but they'll remember that they provided resources for someone to do a job, and that those resources were squandered.

It doesn't take a lawbook to figure that out.


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Finally, we have the story about UAB administering unspecified discipline in the Gillett case:

UAB TO DISCIPLINE KERRY SPOKESMAN FOR ONLINE POLITICKING AT WORK

A volunteer spokesman for John Kerry's presidential campaign in Alabama will be disciplined for using a computer at his workplace--the University of Alabama at Birmingham--to post Internet messages critical of President Bush.

Doug Gillett, an editor in UAB's creative services department, also is in charge of communications for the Democratic candidate in Alabama. He said he didn't realize he could be violating the law with his online messages. "I apologize," Gillett told The Birmingham News, which first reported his online postings Friday.
University spokeswoman Dale Turnbough said Gillett will face disciplinary action for politicking while on school time. But the fact that Gillett's messages were critical of Bush was not a factor, she said.

"UAB has clear policies against using university time and resources for partisan politics or non-university business and takes violation of those policies seriously," Turnbough said. Gillett's punishment won't be made public, she said, and Gillett declined comment on whether he already had been disciplined.
Gillett has been posting items on the Internet for several months. His electronic Web log, or blog, is titled "George W. Bush, Will You Please Go Now?!" He also is the third-most prolific contributor to an online discussion board affiliated with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Politics 101.
By noon Thursday, Gillett had generated and posted to the Internet more than 800 words of commentary, pictures and links to articles on his own blog and contributed almost 700 words to the running arguments on Politics 101, the News said.
The problem is that Gillett has posted items from work. He's a state employee and was using a UAB computer, and his activities could run him afoul of state elections and ethics laws which bars public employees from using "state, county or city funds, property or time, for any political activities." The state ethics law has a similar prohibition.
Jim Sumner, executive director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, said the commission hasn't received any complaints about on-the-job Web postings. Sumner said it would be unenforceable and undesirable to squelch all political speech among state employees during work hours.

"We have to strike a balance," Sumner said. "If it is on a limited basis, that is one thing."


As the stories make clear, Doug caused a bit of a brouhaha--and some embarrassment, I would guess--for UAB. And technically, he did violate university policy and possibly state law.

I, on the other hand, didn't violate policy or law or anything else--and UAB's own "investigation" showed that. But I'm out of a job after 19 years of service.

As they say in the blogosphere, WTF.
(To be continued)

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