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August 10, 2004

Breakin' the Law

Just came across an article from the Birmingham News about the dangers of blogging on the job. According to the article, state employee Doug Gillett, an editor with University of Alabama Birmingham's creative services department, may be breaking state election law by contributing to his anti-Bush blog and to the comments in the Atlanta Journal-Contitution's "Politics 101" blog:

The problem is that he was at work at the time. He's a state employee and was using a UAB computer, and his activities could run him afoul of state elections and ethics laws.

Election law prohibits public employees from using "state, county or city funds, property or time, for any political activities." The state ethics law has a similar prohibition.

Gillett said Thursday that he didn't realize his activities might violate the law. [...]

University of Alabama at Birmingham spokeswoman Dale Turnbough said Thursday Gillett will face disciplinary action. "UAB has clear policies against using university time and resources for partisan politics or non-university business and takes violation of those policies seriously," Turnbough said. "We began to look into this matter as soon as it was brought to our attention today, and we will follow up with appropriate disciplinary action in a timely fashion as soon as we conclude our review."

The Birmingham News articles goes on to quote Jim Sumner from the Alabama Ethics Commission, who notes that blogs represent an interesting new challenge for ethics laws. Discussions that once took place "around the water cooler" are now often taking place in the blogosphere. He notes also that it would be "unenforceable and undesirable" to stop all political speech in the workplace.

Just out of curiosity, does anyone know Georgia law regarding using state or local property or funds for political speech? Or whether such a law would even be enforcable for professors whose work isn't easily measured by the clock? Or what constitutes "political speech" to begin with?

Update: Here is Doug's blog.

Update 2: Ann of Practically Harmless has more information on the story.

Posted by chuck at August 10, 2004 2:18 PM

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I do know that this is a problem for federal workers... especially those who work for the executive branch. It has to do with using your office resources for campaign purposes, I think... the same way that making donor phone calls from the White House is a "no-no."

Posted by: CJ at August 10, 2004 4:49 PM

Okay, makes sense. So "political speech" is essentially "campaign speech." Still, it's an important cautionary tale for people who blog from the office, even on their own time.

Posted by: chuck at August 11, 2004 12:21 PM

There's a specific election law - the Hatch Act - that prohibits political activity using govt. resources (including worker time). For my agency, once you walk out of the building, you're clear to do pretty much whatever you like. So, I can slap on a campaign button once I walk out of my office, but it must be out of view when I'm in the building.

It makes sense, really, in a lot of ways. Prevents misuse of tax money; protects workers; maintains a healthy working environment.

But there are many reasons I generally avoid discussing politics on my blog... no matter if I'm at work or at home. Just not worth the risk.

More details on the Hatch Act here:

Posted by: Jason at August 13, 2004 1:51 PM

That makes a lot of sense. From what I saw on the AJC political blog, the guy in Alabama may not lose his job, but it's certainly not worth the risk of blogging about that stuff from work.

I think the incident does point to the need for some very serious reflections on campaign finance (things that McCain-Feingold failed to address, not to mention problems it created via loopholes).

Posted by: chuck at August 14, 2004 12:19 PM

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