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Blogging and Free Speech Rights of Public Employees

On occasion, I find myself itching to compose a post for this blog relating to some aspect of my work. Often, I end up stopping myself because…well…umm…because I’m scared. You see, I’m an untenured professor in a world (academia) that largely doesn’t get this whole blogging thing. It is (I’m afraid to say) still a fairly traditional space where hierarchies and bureaucracies abound. The politics of higher education are not a whole lot different than the politics of P-12 education. So, I’m extremely cautious so as to not speak badly of anyone or to write anything that might get back to anyone important.

So, I was particularly interested in Vicki “CoolCatTeacher” Daviscomment on Gary Stager’s blog. She wrote, “Classroom teachers in the public school system who blog are on a ‘short leash’ if any and do not truly experience freedom of speech, as you could well imagine.”

Then, Will Richardson posted today about a similar topic. According to Will, “…the New York City Department of Education has laid down the law about employees referencing their blogs in their e-mail signatures…the city is providing disclaimer language for anyone in the department who blogs and who comments on other’s blog.”

As you might imagine, this is all very troubling to me. I have academic freedom and so do K-12 educators. There are laws about that. I even JUST presented a paper about free speech rights of K-12 educators. Here’s the legal standard in a nutshell: First, is our expression (blogging is certainly a form of expression) a matter of public concern? In almost all cases, the answer to this is yes (if not, there are no First Amendment protections for purely private speech). In the Gary Stager case, writing about Reading First would be a matter of public concern. The second step in the analysis is the “disruption” test. Does the individual’s interest in expressing him/herself outweigh the disruption caused to the school environment? In other words, did the expression interfere with teaching, destroy morale, create lots of negative chatter, etc? Negative publicity has been deemed to be NOT disruption in at least one instance.

So, I think I need to reflect a bit and find my voice again. And, I hope the teachers Vicki commented about can find theirs as well. They and I have rights.


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