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The Argus-eyed University

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We could hardly end 2008 without delivering a George Orwell Honorable Mention to the University of Alabama at Birmingham for its truly extraordinary “acceptable use” policy on employee Internet use. There’s nothing strange about the language of the policy–in fact it’s pedestrian (the Internet “may not be used for any activity which is destructive, disruptive, or illegal” it says). But how the university interprets and applies this prohibition might surprise an observer–unless, of course, the observer is attuned to the peculiarities of Alabama politics.

Case in point: The university recently fired Roger Shuler, a long-time public relations employee who blogs on legal developments under the moniker “the Legal Schnauzer,” apparently expressing concern in a grievance hearing over the fact that he regularly visited and read Harper’s. After The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on the firing, the university posted a credibility-straining assertion that the firing was “based solely on work performance.” Also according to the Chronicle:

The university told The Raw Story that Mr. Shuler had not been fired for blogging, but it would not comment further. In June an appeals committee at the university voted to overturn Mr. Shuler’s dismissal. But he says the university recently told him that, while he could be rehired, he would not get his former job back.

Shuler says that the decision to fire him was based on the political content of his blog posts, which were critical of Alabama Governor Bob Riley and one of his key allies, U.S. Attorney Alice Martin. According to Shuler, the firing occurred only a few months after one of Riley’s political cronies threatened him with the loss of his job because of his blogging. Indeed, to the university’s chagrin, his final review session was taped, and portions which have now been published suggest that the primary concern of his reviewers was that he was publicly critical of the state’s political powers.

Martin’s office, according to a report from Raw Story, denied that “her office was in any way involved with Shuler’s termination. ‘There has been no contact by the office to Mr Shuler’s employer,’ she wrote.” So what led to the firing? That apparently will be for a court to determine. In the meantime it’s worth noting some other cases of Internet abuse at the university to see how they were handled.

Apparently the university actually is prepared to be liberal about Internet use–as long as that use isn’t in “liberal” interests. Huntsville CBS affiliate WHNT recently broadcast a study of the university’s bizarre double standard. One university employee recently used her work account to pen this note to the leaders of an Anti-Proposition 8 group in California: “You freaks make me sick. You are the scourge of the earth and are responsible for everything that’s wrong in this sorry world because of the immorality you have brought on the world as a whole.” The university’s response to the use of its facilities to transmit this hate mail? According to WHNT, they won’t say more than that they did “follow up appropriately as outlined by UAB’s Acceptable Use Policy”; there is no evidence of whether any disciplinary action was taken. WHNT’s Greg Privett also noted a widely circulated ditty coming from the university’s pediatrics office. It starts “Wuz the night befo Crizzmus” and it proceeds to ridicule President-Elect Obama in overtly racist tones. Surely this violates the university’s “acceptable use” policy?

It seems that in Birmingham one type of “political speech” is protected and can be freely spread using the university’s servers while another is not–even when the employee is expressing it on private time and his own computer. George Orwell would understand.

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