Is somebody trying to tell me something here?

Yesterday, I received two emails within about three hours of each other about the dangers of blogging and keeping your job. One came from the Tech-Rhet mailing list about this guy in Great Britain who was fired from his bookstore job because of his blog. This is actually old news to me– more on that in a second. The other post, which came from a student of mine, is a Yahoo! news article called “Free Expression Can Be Costly When Bloggers Bad-Mouth Jobs.” It’s sort of a summary of the various ways that some well-known bloggers have been canned– though, according to the article at least, the “totally hip” term for this is being “dooced.”

Anyway, four thoughts:

  • I actually posted about this back in January, and I feel pretty much the same way then that I do now. I certainly believe in free speech and academic freedom, but at the same time, I’m not sure that gives one the right to say just anything they want.
  • I think that one of the problems that these employee blogs have is they just can’t seem to keep their identities hidden, I suppose because they like the attention, and maybe they kind of actually want to be “caught” in some way. It’s kind of like a criminal returning to the scene of a crime. Here’s a telling passage from that Yahoo! article:

    “At first, he [the author of Waiter Rant, which is a pretty well-written blog] said, he did not tell anyone about the blog. He especially didn’t want his mother to read it. But he became frustrated the blog was getting no attention so one day he sent a link to a popular blogger in England. Today, the anonymous waiter has more than 1,000 readers a day.

    “‘At some point, I started to care who read it,’ the waiter said. ‘Anyone who produces anything, you like feedback.'”

    And, I would submit, an appropriate synonym for “feedback” here is “attention.”

  • It seems to me that the two uniting factors in the kinds of posts/writing that get people fired are personal attacks and talking about contractual trade secrets. Calling your boss an “asshole” is never going to endear you to management, even if you disguise the identity of your boss with some pseudonym. And if you work for a company/organization where you are specifically not allowed to write or talk about “X” and you write about “X,” then you’ll probably end up fired.

    While I’ve written critically about some things here at EMU, I don’t think I’ve made personal attacks. I mean, I had plenty of gripes about former EMU president Sam Kirkpatrick, but he was certainly a “public figure” when I was complaining about him. In fact, everything I posted was pretty much my take on what had been reported in the newspapers.

    I would never post something mean about individual students or faculty colleagues or whoever. That would be completely unprofessional, and I suppose it would arguably cross the line of academic freedom, too.

  • Which leads me to my fourth thought: tenure, academic freedom and the rights of professors to speak their mind (e.g., Ward Churchill) is different situation from folks “in the real world” getting fired from jobs for writing the wrong thing, and it’s different in subtle but important ways. To quote from the Yahoo article I link to above:

    “‘In most states,’ said Gregg M. Lemley, a St. Louis labor lawyer, ‘if an employer doesn’t like what you’re talking about, they can simply terminate you.'”

    In academia, the concept of tenure and academic freedom specifically allow faculty to say things that might be controversial and/or “not liked” by an employer and lots of other people. At most places (including the University of Colorado), this concept is literally documented– in other words, tenure and academic freedom are more or less contractual. This is why Churchill wasn’t simply fired and why his ongoing status as a tenured professor is being reviewed right now.

    Now, for most academics (as is the case for most everybody else), the concept of “academic freedom” never really becomes an issue. I mean, I don’t think any of my ideas or scholarly writings are controversial enough to land me in Churchill-like trouble, and I can’t think of anyone I work with who might have a “freedom” problem either. But it’s always the extreme cases that test ideals, and I think that upholding the academic freedom of someone like Churchill ultimately benefits more “middle-of-the-road” academics like me.

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