Thursday, May 15, 2008

Public university employee dooced for anti-gay op-ed: how does freedom of speech fit in?

There is another controversy now over a recent Guest Opinion piece by Crystal Dixon in the Toledo Free Press, from April 18, 2008. (Toledo is in northwestern Ohio, in “Days of our Lives” country, south of Detroit.) The piece is titled “Gay rights and wrongs: another perspective” with the link here. As part of the background, the visitor should know that her piece relates to an April 4, 2008 “Gay rights and wrongs” by Michael S. Miller, Editor in Chief of the Paper, link here. Dixon’s piece discusses “morality” in a somewhat simplified “religious” fashion, with reasoning that used to be used to justify sodomy laws (two postings ago). She criticizes the comparison of gay people to African Americans, and hints at the right-wing “demographic winter” argument that gay people usually don’t have families and usually make more money than African Americans and have more discretionary income than families with children (not always true).

Then, according to a story by Peter Winn on Cybercast News Service, Crystal Dixon was suspended with pay from her position as an associate vice president of human resources at the University of Toledo, which is a state school. Essentially, the university dooced her. The story is “College suspends administrator for op-ed on homosexuals,” link here.

It should be added that Dixon’s article did not mention her work position or even identify her employer. (She did mention she was an alumnus of the school and one sentence could be read as indirectly identifying her as an employee -- a valid point of analysis.) Nevertheless, the University said that her writing did not represent the position of the school and that it was necessary to “repudiate her writing.” Jacobs then spoke directly for the University and maintained that it supports “two pending domestic partner bills in the Ohio Legislature: Senate Bill 305 and House Bill 502” (from the CNS story).

“GayPatriotWest” wrote an op-ed on the libertarian-oriented “Gay Patriot” website “University Suspends Administrator for Op-Ed on Gay Rights” on May 12, link here. He takes the position that, while the op-ed says “silly things”, she, as a public sector employee, can write what she wants on her own time as long as it doesn’t interfere with her job. The posting has quickly accumulated many comments.

Now, for me, that’s the rub. She is a vice-president. Presumably, others report to her in the workplace, and she makes decisions that affect people who report to her. She might have the power to make decisions that affect students. Furthermore, she is a “public official” for the university, and she is known publicly by her stakeholders to be in the position, even if she did not mention the position in the op-ed. In these days of “reputation defender” it’s easy for students and employees at the school to locate her on the Internet with search engines.

It is true, she is a public employee (I think), and if the case is litigated, that could affect the outcome, as it often does for teachers. But part of her job is to make decisions about subordinates. She took that job voluntarily. That means that in some sense she represents the views of the University by taking the job. If she wants to disagree publicly, she should not have taken the job in the first place.

Now, how about the real world? In private business, generally you have to be careful about expressing opinions in public (like in letters to the editor or, now, even on your own blog or profile) that could embarrass the boss or your employer. (That’s how Heather Armstrong’s “Dooce” website, covered recently on ABC Nightline, got started.) It’s particularly important if you have direct reports, grade students, make underwriting decisions about customers, or speak for the organization. In the pre-Internet print world, people generally understood they needed to express care in newspaper letters, and today in this search-engine world you obviously need to bear this in mind on the Internet. Things get found with amazing speed. It happened to me when I was substitute teaching in 2005 (as I have detailed elsewhere on the blogs – check the search engines).

For me, at least, part of the moral issue is the “loyalty” that helps justify a paycheck in some kinds of jobs (related, again, to “reputation defense”). That’s why I’ve said before that those with those kinds of job responsibilities should probably let others participate in managing their online presence. I suspect that over time many employers will insist on it. (There are companies, like Ziggs, coming into being that do just that.) I was somewhat “fortunate” when I was working in information technology in that I was an “individual contributor” but even so I had to be careful and I did a job transfer in 1997 partly to get away from the military side of the business (since I was writing about gays in the military and “don’t ask don’t tell”). Since I “retired” I have been outspoken, but I realize that at some point in the future I could have to take down my own presence if I take certain kinds of jobs. I just don’t know whether that will happen, but it could. There are no specific plans now. But it’s like wondering if there will be a merger.

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