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Blogging Rights

Growing in popularity among students and scholars, blogs are
raising issues regarding free speech for university administrations

By Dina M. Horwedel

For a year and a half, Meg Spohn served as an adjunct faculty member at DeVry University’s Westminster, Colo., campus. A well-liked instructor, her engaging teaching style landed her the  position as department chair of communications and composition. But one month after her promotion, she was fired for content posted on her personal blog.

Spohn says she was never told what content was objectionable, never informed of guidelines regarding faculty/staff blogging and never given the opportunity to remove the content in question from her blog. She was told only that the academic dean and the human resources department were aware of her blog and that she was being fired. DeVry officials did not return calls seeking comment.

“How I ‘denigrated’ them is a mystery to me, and I never said anything negative about the students,” says Spohn, currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Denver. She says she made the circumstances surrounding her firing public because she says few employers have guidelines about blogging, and many employees have some sort of Internet presence.

The explosion in blogs, or “Web logs,” has generated a new wrinkle in an old free speech argument. Are colleges and universities developing and adequately explaining their policies on blogging? Do faculty have free speech rights when it comes to off-campus expression on blogs, even if the postings are critical of the school?

Constitutional First Amendment protections do not extend to private employers or institutions like DeVry, where there is no “state action.” And Colorado, where Spohn was employed, has at-will employment laws, meaning an employer can dismiss an employee for essentially any reason other than those protected under anti-discrimination laws, specifically, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender and disability.

Jonathan Knight, director of the academic freedom and tenure program at the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), weighed in on, a blog for attorneys and law firms. Knight says that although the AAUP does not have a policy or specific guideline about blogging, blog postings “fall within the same category of speech as op-ed pieces and other public commentary.” He also asserts “faculty have the right to express themselves vigorously and freely,” including on subjects regarding university policy and leadership.

Eugene Volokh, the Gary T. Schwartz Professor of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles, agrees with the AAUP, but takes it a step further.

“I think that colleges and universities that see themselves as places for scholarship have a professional responsibility to protect their faculty members’ academic freedom. Of course public colleges and universities also have a constitutional responsibility to do this because they’re bound by the First Amendment,” Volokh says. “This academic freedom should include public commentary even when it’s written from one’s office, during the work day, and in one’s ‘official capacity’ as a professor. Professors write most of their articles, op-eds, blog posts and the like while ‘on the job,’ because public speech is part of their job.

“Academic freedom should likewise include even public commentary that some may deride as ‘hate speech.’” Volokh says. “Ideas, even offensive ones, about religion, sex, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity and the like are important parts of academic debate and public debate.

“On the other hand,” he adds, “trade schools that see themselves, and describe themselves to the outside world as simply places in which people teach an existing stock of ideas to their students, and that aren’t supposed to engage in scholarship that advances our storehouse of ideas, might reasonably say that they aren’t covered by academic freedom principles because they aren’t really academic (in the sense of being devoted to scholarship as well as teaching) institutions. But if a place bills itself as a scholarly institution, it should adhere to scholarly traditions and professional norms of academic freedom,” Volokh says.
The speech and expression policy at private Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., explicitly protects students,’ faculty and administrators’ “rights to express points of view on the widest range of public and private concerns and to engage in the robust expression of ideas.” But the policy, which university assistant vice president for communications Erik Smulson says would extend to blogs, goes on to say that such freedom “is subject to reasonable restrictions of time, place and manner.” Stanford University offers workshops and creative writing courses that teach blogging. And Stanford Law School hosts the Center for Internet and Society, a program that brings together academicians, legislators, students, programmers, security researchers and scientists to study the interaction of technologies and law and the effects on issues such as free speech. Stanford’s Academic Freedom Policy similarly states, “Stanford University’s central functions of teaching, learning, research, and scholarship depend upon an atmosphere in which freedom of inquiry, thought, expression, publication and peaceable assembly are given the fullest protection. Expression of the widest range of viewpoints should be encouraged, free from institutional orthodoxy and from internal or external coercion. Further, the holding of appointments at Stanford University should in no way affect the faculty members’ rights assured by the Constitution of the United States.”

At The Ohio State University, academic blogs have become subject matter for their own blogs. The Web site for Trends and Issues in Extension details blogging for academics and references a article on the perils of academic blogging. The online forum looks at the role blogging plays in academic work, and how blogging could influence a hiring decision, as well as ruin the chances to make tenure if a blog contains information the administration does not like.

The point has been raised — on blogs and in other publications — that publishing a blog is not necessarily an academic pursuit.

Cleveland State University has an academic freedom policy modeled on that of the AAUP’s, and does not address blogs. Yet a provision, stating that it acknowledges individual’s right to “free expression on and off the campus” would seem to cover blogs, regardless of whether they are part of an academic role.

As Trends and Issues in Extension notes, blogs are here to stay. How higher education deals with them remains to be seen.

Students and faculty alike have had problems with organizational censure at both private and public institutions. And the issue isn’t unique to academia. Mark Jen, a Google employee for only 10 days, made the news last year after he was fired for apparently posting corporate secrets on his personal blog. And former Delta Airlines flight attendant Ellen Simonetti was fired for posting “inappropriate photos” on her blog, which featured her in her uniform. She has since filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In other incidents, employees have been “dooced” for revealing confidential information or openly griping about their co-workers, bosses or students. The term was coined in 2002 by Heather B. Armstrong, who was fired from her job as a Web designer after writing about her job and co-workers on her blog. Late last year, a committee of professors, administrators and students at Marquette University determined that a dental student violated professional conduct codes after posting negative comments about unnamed students and professors on his blog. He was suspended for two semesters, lost his scholarship and was required to attend counseling, although his punishment was reduced to three semesters of probation after an appeal.

For those in academia, blogging can offer cross-institutional, cross-cultural and cross-border support. The new technology offers an exchange of ideas that wasn’t as spontaneous — or even possible in some remote areas — previously. A blog can allow a scientist to share research with colleagues, ponder reasons for experimental outcomes or offer suggestions and input. Spohn cites personal and intellectual development as her primary reasons for blogging, and says she’s expanded her circle of colleagues and friends as a result.

Bloggers often tout the medium’s ability to create a worldwide forum for open expression. But it is that kind of far-reaching impact that some administrators find unsettling, especially when it comes to criticism or other speech deemed contrary to the institution’s mission.

Says Spohn: “In my case, if there were particular ‘firing’ words for blogs, I should have been told about them and had access to that information. Barring that, I should have had the opportunity to have a discussion about my blog rather than having been fired outright. I think it’s up to institutions to form fair guidelines about this kind of thing. ‘Nobody here is allowed to have an Internet presence,’ won’t work.’”

Spohn’s blog includes information about her teaching philosophies, personal observations and more. For example, a recent posting included commentary about why she didn’t advocate teaching to an institution’s minimum requirements, as she felt students often met or exceeded her expectations.

But Spohn maintains that she felt a sense of duty and loyalty to the university and believes she did not write anything that would warrant her dismissal. She is considering taking legal action against the university.

“If DeVry paid my salary, why would I want to hurt their business? Any mild kvetching on my blog was nothing I hadn’t already shared with the administration,” she says. “I think if you have serious enough gripes with your employer that you can’t do that, you’d be much better served to find a place to work where you’ll be happier than to try to hurt them.”

Did You Know?

A blog, shorthand for “Web log,” is an online diary that is published over the Internet. The reasons for blogging may be as numerous as the bloggers themselves. According to the Pew Internet Study <>, an estimated 50 million Internet users, roughly 11 percent of the American online community, are regular blog readers. According to, a California-based blog tracking search engine, there are about 70,000 new blogs a day. And bloggers update their Web logs with approximately 700,000 posts daily, or about 29,100 blog updates an hour.

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