I just read Monday morning massacre: 17 employees fired for forwarding porn and, quite frankly, I am appalled. The TELLING part of this article is the quote:
"It would be considered offensive by many people, and some of it was very pornographic and we're an educational association," Cindy Stevenson, superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools, said. "We work with children. As far as we know, no students saw anything inappropriate," she said.
We can all appreciate the sensitivity of the matter of pornography in an educational setting where minors are present but their was nothing in the article suggesting that the e-mails in question were publicly available (posted on a listserv, for instance). In fact, except for listservs (and similar mass e-mail tools), e-mail is decidedly private. It is not accessible to ANYONE except the sender, the recipient, and the UNSCRUPULOUS systems administrator.
From the quote above, it appears that some of these people may have been dismissed for material which might be offensive to some people -- but in other's estimation might not rise to the level of pornography. To some people, an off-color joke, or a stereotype with sexual overtones might be consider pornographic. Unlike obscenity, from a legal standpoint pornography is not illegal -- unless the exploitation of minors is involved -- which seems not to be the case here.
I would understand if one or more employees decided to knowingly flood their co-worker's e-mail environment with material they thought might be offensive but, without more information, one has every reason to believe that either (1) an employee inadvertently included someone on his mailing list that was offended and decided to 'blow the whistle', or (2) the school district has been reading its employees' e-mail.
If it's the former, a lot of good employees may have paid a high price for the indiscretion of one or two of them. If, on the other had, the later is the case, the school district overstepped the bounds of decency by snooping on its employees.
I said in my last post (See Rights of privacy for all?) that a student's right of privacy should be of paramount importance. Well, it ought to be a forgone conclusion that the same privacy rights should be extended to an educational institution's employees.
At the very least, no employee should ever be subject to having their personal e-mail monitored unless they have been explicitly advised that their employer is doing so. While any employer has a right restrict an employee's use of employer-owned technology, unless the employee's productivity leads the employer to be concerned about the activities of that employee, the employee's privacy should be of the utmost concern.
A final word to the wise:
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.
As foretold by George Orwell in his Novel "1984", we have reached a point where loss of privacy has been justified as a means of protecting ourselves and our society. Sadly, such viewpoints only open the door to tyranny by those who would claim to be our protectors.