In a recent posting, Well, so much for privacy!, I criticized the actions of a school district in Colorado based solely upon the content of a post (Monday morning massacre: 17 employees fired for forwarding porn) which was summarizing a story in the Denver Post.
My intent was to point out the importance of well-established usage policies designed to protect the rights and privacy of users of computing facilities (students and educators) provided in an educational setting.
Even though there is no legal expectation of privacy when using institutionally-owned systems, it is important for employers and employees to share a level of trust, and in an educational setting, students won't learn to trust those in authority if they are not also trusted by those in authority.
In an environment where academic freedom, which was once sacrosanct, is under attack by the politically correct who would choose to censor certain subjects simply because they are controversial, and at a time when privacy rights are being casually discarded under the guise of 'protection', it is easy to lose sight of the overriding goals of our educational institutions.
The title of the post which prompted me to write in the first place, suggested to me that a bureaucratic overreaction to some poor judgement had just lost seventeen people their jobs overnight. Well perhaps I was wrong. According to the Denver Post, the firings followed an investigation which " ... is hundreds of pages long, spanning months." Presumably, during those months, the employees involved had the opportunity to make things right.
It doesn't change my concerns about how these e-mails (the true nature of the material in question has not been made public) might have come to the attention of the school district (by an offended recipient or through the district's monitoring of personal e-mail). Nevertheless, reading a more complete record of circumstances leading to the actions of the school district suggests to me that these actions were not taken lightly.
As I have said before:
Sending e-mail is not like sending a letter. A letter is sealed and is almost never opened by the the post office. Sending e-mail is more like sending a post card. The postman that picks it up can read it, the postman that delivers it can read it, and so can everyone between you and the intended recipient.
Discretion remains the better part of valor.
While an employee may not have any legal expectation of privacy, until they have shown that they are not deserving of trust, their privacy should be respected and their rights and responsibilities as they pertain to institutionally-owned computing resources should be laid out through well-defined policy.
And students should be afforded the same respect, with similar rights and responsibilities.