An Alabama teacher captured the nation's attention this week when he used the assassination of President Obama as an instructional tool in a geometry class.
Once we got past the sheer audacity of Gregory Harrison's actions, we were struck by this part of the story: School officials initially did not plan to discipline Harrison.
Why did that strike a nerve? Like Harrison, I used to work in public education in Alabama. And like Harrison, I engaged in what could be called political speech. But unlike Harrison, I was supportive of progressive ideas, as espoused by folks like Barack Obama. And unlike Harrison, I was summarily fired, with zero cause.
So perhaps the real shocker here is not Gregory Harrison and his wrongheaded teaching techniques. It's the blatant double standard applied to alleged political speech in Alabama public education. And my guess is that Alabama hardly is alone in employing such a double standard.
Longtime readers of Legal Schnauzer know my employment nightmare. In fact, yesterday marked the two-year "anniversary" of my unlawful termination at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).
I had worked 19 years in various editorial positions at UAB when I was canned on May 19, 2008. I had received good to excellent performance reviews throughout that time and had no disciplinary record under UAB policy. But I had spoken out on this blog in what could be called a progressive manner--writing critically about corruption in the Bush Justice Department--and soon a 30-year career as a professional journalist was in tatters.
In a termination letter, UAB gave vague reasons for my firing, saying I had violated university policies--without saying what those policies were. The general allegation seemed to be that I had engaged in excessive "non-work related activity" (NWR) and misused my university computer.
Apparently I was not alone in finding the allegations vague and thin. The university committee that heard my grievance ruled that I should not have been fired. UAB's chief human resources officer, however, said I could not return to work unless: (1) I accepted two written warnings in my file; (2) I accepted another, unspecified job--in an unspecified department, with an unspecified supervisor; (3) I agreed to quit blogging.
Even in Karl Rove's Alabama--this was June 2008--I found No. 3 to be a jaw-dropper. HR chief Cheryl E.H. Locke did not put any of the three provisos in writing, so I said I needed a week to think about it and e-mailed her to confirm what I had heard.
Locke agreed that I'd heard Nos. 1 and 2 correctly, but on No. 3, she said she meant that I could no longer blog at work. I then reminded her that a UAB information-technology expert named Sean Maher testified in my grievance hearing that he had been asked to monitor my computer usage in real time and found that I never wrote the first letter of my blog on university time or equipment.
Locke apparently had no answer for that because she did not respond. When we met again, I informed her that I was not accepting her offer. I noted that, under UAB policy, an employee who receives three written warnings in an 18-month period of time is automatically fired. I further noted that I had sat through the entire four-hour grievance hearing, and no evidence was presented to indicate that I should have been disciplined at all--much less receive termination or written warnings.
"Your offer seems like a bad-faith attempt to get me to come back, sign away my rights to the wrongs I've experienced, and then fire me all over again," I told Locke. To her credit, she didn't deny it. "Well, if you get a third written warning, that will be up to your new supervisor."
This came after Locke had told me that she and her staff were deeply committed to making sure I had a successful future at UAB. I would later discover that Locke almost certainly was planning her exit from the university when she spoke those words. She now holds an HR job at Wake Forest University.
The bottom line? Locke went against the findings of her own committee and upheld my termination. When I appealed to President Carol Garrison, she did the same thing.
I've now been unemployed for two years--in the worst economy since the Great Depression.
Let's do a brief comparison of Gregory Harrison's behavior and my behavior:
* Harrison clearly made inappropriate comments of a political nature; I started a blog that, by UAB's own policy, is not political in nature. At the time of my firing, I never had endorsed a political candidate, party, or campaign. I also had not identified myself as a UAB employee and did not write about matters related to work.
* While Harrison apparently did not endorse a presidential assassination, he did seem to make light of a would-be criminal act. This indicated that he is not terribly concerned about acts of gross injustice; I, on the other hand, spoke out against injustice--especially corruption in Alabama state courts and the apparent political prosecutions, at the federal level, of Democrats Don Siegelman in Alabama and Paul Minor in Mississippi.
* The evidence against Harrison is overwhelming. Every news account I've seen indicates he did indeed use the Obama assassination story as a teaching tool. The evidence against me is nonexistent. UAB's own IT guru admitted I had never typed the first letter of my blog at work. With that off the table, UAB apparently leaned on vague allegations that I was "researching" my blog at work, constituting non-work related activity.
This "researching my blog" charge is nonsensical on multiple levels. The claim seems to be that I was checking various news items about the Siegelman case, and then posts would show up on my blog about the Siegelman case. In making this charge, UAB conveniently ignored my job description. My fellow editors and I were charged with, among many other things, keeping up with current events so that we could present possible story ideas for our some 20 alumni publications, covering almost every academic subject at a major research university.
The Siegelman story was of particular interest because (a) It was the biggest story in Alabama at the time, one with major national interest; (b) Siegelman, when he was governor, was ex oficio president of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, which governs UAB; (c) Richard Scrushy, Siegelman's codefendant, was (and is) UAB's most famous alumnus and had his name on any number of buildings before he went to prison; (d) It touched on political science, Alabama history, criminal justice--all topics of study at UAB.
In short, I would have been neglecting my duty if I had not been keeping up with the Siegelman story. So I essentially got fired for doing my job.
And how is this for more irony? Part of UAB's allegations seems to be that, in my spare moments, I was looking at blogs--dangerous, subversive stuff like No Comment, by Scott Horton at harpers.org. Again, however, UAB ignored my job duties. Pam Powell, my supervisor, had repeatedly told all of us to learn about "new media," including blogs, so that we could offer such services to our clients in the various UAB schools. We all knew that communication was moving away from the printed page and toward digital formats, so this was an effort to stay on the leading technological edge.
I, indeed, used my research to make several "new media" suggestions that generated new business for our department. What was my reward? I got fired.
Here is perhaps the nuttiest part of UAB's "researching my blog" claim. It totally ignores the digital nature of the Web. The material is there 24/7; it isn't going anywhere. As any blogger knows, if you want to research something on the Web, you can find it, read the relevant parts and link to it in a matter of minutes. You can cut and paste parts directly into a post in a matter of seconds. There is no reason to "research" any non-work material at work.
The time-consuming part of blogging is actually writing the stuff. And UAB's own expert admitted I wasn't doing that.
What's the real difference between the Harrison case and mine? The ugly truth is this: Political speech that trashes a progressive, especially a black one, is acceptable in Alabama; Political speech that questions the actions of conservatives must be punished.
When I get into court with UAB--and that day is coming soon--the university undoubtedly will contend that the content of my blog had nothing to do with the decision to fire me.
But the words of Anita Bonasera, UAB's director of employee relations, tears that story to shreds. After I was placed on administrative leave, I called Bonasera to ask several questions about the grievance process. In the course of the conversation, Bonasera made it clear that I was targeted, and ultimately fired, because of my blog content about the Siegelman case.
I tape recorded the conversation, so it's not a he said/she said deal. Is there a double standard regarding political speech in Alabama public education? The answer is yes, and below is resounding proof.
(Some background: The clip lasts a little more than three minutes. For roughly the first 1:30, I'm trying to explain to Bonasera the nature of my job duties--that I wasn't engaged in non-work activity. Who was the determiner of what was non-work activity? Bonasera says it was my supervisor, Pam Powell, against whom I had filed a formal grievance roughly two weeks earlier. Can we say retaliation? At about 1:50, Bonasera admits that these employment issues were related to my blog--and then tries to backtrack. While backtracking, at roughly 2:08, she admits that I was targeted because of the Siegelman content on my blog.)
Audio: UAB and the Cost of Blogging About the Siegelman Case
As for the Harrison story, it continues to resonate on the national stage. On last night's Countdown on MSNBC, Keith Olbermann's "Worst Person in the World" was Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Phil Hammnonds, who only decided to discipline Harrison because of a public outcry: