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Monday, December 15, 2008

UAB and "Acceptable Use" of a Computer

We recently reported on a story about a UAB employee who used a state-owned computer to send a hate-filled e-mail to a gay-rights group.

You might have noticed a deafening silence from UAB on the issue of possible discipline for the woman who sent the e-mail. You might also notice a disconnect between the way UAB seems to be treating this woman and the way it fired me unlawfully after 19 years of service.

All of which brings us to the issue of computer usage in the workplace. And it brings up a mistake I made in my previous post on this subject.

I wrote that UAB did not have a policy on the use of computers and the Internet--or at least one that I had been able to find. Well, I finally found it, and it is called UAB's Acceptable Use Policy (AUP).

Funny that I worked at the university for 19 years--and I was pretty good about keeping up with campus news, reading office memos, etc.--and I had never seen or heard of this thing. Guess that's because some genius decided it shouldn't be published in the employee handbook.

Anyway, the UAB AUP makes my termination smell even worse than it did before--if that's possible. And it also raises an odor about the blanket of protection UAB appears to be laying down for the woman who sent the anti-gay e-mail.

A few points jump out from reading the UAB policy:

* It is a policy violation to transmit messages that use threatening, racist, sexist, or harassing language. Bottom line? The woman, with the anti-gay e-mail, clearly violated UAB policy.

* UAB gave only vague reasons for my dismissal, but they seem to focus on allegations that I engaged in excessive "non work-related activity" on my computer, involving my "personal blog." Nowhere are these subjects mentioned in the UAB AUP policy, and we already have established that they are not mentioned in the employee handbook. We also have established that the Web research I did on my work computer was indeed related to my job--in fact, it was a requirement of my job. Bottom line? I did not violate UAB policy. I already knew that, but a reading of the AUP doubly confirms it.

* The AUP says violations of policy will be handled with revocation of user accounts, revocation of network access, and/or progressive discipline actions. Under university policy, progressive discipline is to start with an oral warning. Neither the AUP, nor the employee handbook, says that immediate termination--as happened in my case--is appropriate. And that's if you actually violated policy--which I did not.

The general tone of the UAB policy is to prohibit computer use that is "destructive, disruptive, or illegal." Even if the allegations against me were true, my use was none of those things. And considering that my use actually was part of my job description . . . well, you can see why I sense that my termination was driven by Republican political forces external to the university.

As we recently have shown, using Auburn University and its football program as examples, people in higher education can do some incredibly stupid things. But my termination is, shall we say, off the charts.

So what should happen to the woman who sent the anti-gay e-mail? According to university policy, she probably should get an oral warning--although a case could be made for written warning considering the nasty nature of the offense.

If you take my case in consideration, the woman should be fired. Of course, if my case were used as a guideline, almost everyone on campus would be fired--at least those who were using computers to do their jobs.

In reality, UAB does not have a problem with employees using computers to do their jobs. The university only has a problem when an employee, on his own time, writes a blog that exposes corruption among Alabama Republicans and criticizes the Bush Justice Department, particularly its handling of the Don Siegelman case.

So what do we learn from the case of the anti-gay e-mail and the case of the Legal Schnauzer? We learn that UAB has no problem with an employee using state-owned equipment to send a bigoted, threatening message, an act that clearly violates university policy.

On the other hand, UAB does have a problem with an employee who writes a blog, on his own time, about government corruption--an act that clearly is not a violation of university policy.

Do you see a problem with UAB's application of the First Amendment?

UAB is supported both by state taxpayer dollars and by more than $400 million a year in federal research grants. Taxpayers from one coast to the other have a vested interest in how this institution conducts itself.

Perhaps it is time that taxpayers make their voices heard about discriminatory and unlawful practices at one of the nation's largest academic medical centers.

A good place to start would be by contacting the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, which controls the purse strings that send millions of dollars to UAB every year.

Rep. Dave Obey (D-WI) chairs the committee, and contact information can be found here.

Beverly Pheto recently was named staff director for the House Appropriations Committee.

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