News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to MinneKota@gmail.com

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Freedom of speech where you might think the sun doesn't shine

A friend of my children told this story with a kind of shocked indignation. It is about a young woman with a good job, but a boss she detested. She took to discussing the boss in very derogatory ways on her MySpace page and in comments to friends on their pages and blogs. Some of the comments were vicious.

One Friday morning as soon as she came to work, she was summoned to her boss's office, where she found her boss, the boss over him, a personnel department executive, and a company attorney assembled. She was handed a letter informing her that she was terminated immediately. Attached to the letter was a stack of printouts of all the things she had said about her boss and the company on the Internet. The stack also included aspects of her personal life that seemed incompatible with the position she held and were regarded as an embarrassment by the company. The attorney explained that she was being fired for cause, which was documented in the file she was given, that the company could give her only a very damaging reference, and she was given an hour to clear out her desk and be out the door.

Eventually she sought help from an attorney, but all he could do was comment that she was really stupid for putting those things on the Internet and that she had in effect turned her work experience into something that would be used against her and would follow her. He referred her to an organization that helped people rehabilitate themselves after they had met such Internet disasters. The last I heard, she was still trying to find a decent job.

The organization helping her made the point that what happens on the Internet does not stay on the Internet. It becomes part of your life and your identity wherever you go.

I thought of this incident recently when I received an e-mail from a recently retired colleague who was asked by the university system he had worked for to help them review applications for academic jobs. This colleague had been the provost of a program he coordinated among a number of campuses in the system he worked for, and in recent decades that program dealt extensively with computer-driven communications. He was called in to help review and assess items that job candidates had posted on the Internet.

The problem, he said, was not the opinions or attitudes reflected in the postings, or necessarily aspects of their personal lives that might seem a bit seamy. It was the fact that people put in Internet postings thoughts and expressions that appear to disqualify the candidates for the jobs they are seeking. My colleague was seeking some perspectives on including a review of such postings as records of a candidate's professional qualifications. He stated the problem this way:

You review credential files carefully put together to reflect a high level of study, critical thought, and performance, and then you find Internet materials that have the same effect as receiving a very negative assessment from some colleagues and acquaintances of the candidate. You encounter Internet materials that show deep prejudices, defective thinking, malice, and cavalier attitudes about accurately representing the words and work of other people. And sometimes the postings reveal a great capacity for stupidity. In some cases some people with very impressive credentials would seem to be disqualified by their Internet postings. The web changes the way we have traditionally made professional evaluations.

I do not often venture into Face Book and My Space pages, but my family does and on occasion they refer me to something posted in them. I do browse many news organizations and blogs that deal with current events and affairs. The Internet and its many manifestations reveal a deep vein of ignorance and misunderstanding that runs through it. I find it particularly disheartening to read some intellectually incompetent postings by people who claim to be public school teachers. I would not permit a child of mine to be in a classroom presided over by these people. What they say reflects on their professional integrity and competence.

They exercise their right to free speech on the Internet, and we in turn exercise our right to evaluate what they say and how they say it. There is a huge difference between informed, intelligent discussion and the expression of minds trapped in ideologies and prejudices in ways that call into question their fitness to teach and evaluate children. The web adds a dimension to our evaluations of competence.

A common complaint of our education system is that the unions have made it impossible to fire incompetent teachers. In fact, what the teachers' unions require is due process. If a school administration or school board has a documented case, teachers may be fired. Immediately. And the Internet seems to be providing just such documentation in some cases.

In people's words, their quality of thinking and character is revealed. The Internet documents it.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States

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