Christopher Swope was GOVERNING's executive editor.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
One morning this summer, thousands of cubicle dwellers in Frankfort, Kentucky, started the work day in the usual fashion: sipping a cup of coffee and surfing the Internet for news. Then, something unusual disrupted the routine. Certain political blogs, the essential morning fix of many state government employees, were blocked.
It was nothing new for Kentucky to filter the Web sites that its 34,000 employees can access; sites featuring pornography and racist, sexist or hate-filled speech have been blocked for years--as they are in many government and corporate workplaces around the country. But this was the first time that Kentucky or any other state had put blogs on the blacklist, too.
The situation has opened a philosophical debate on the difference between traditional news sites and blogs, which often link to newspaper articles and put their own opinionated spin on them. It's also put a new wrinkle in a timeless question: What sorts of workplace activities constitute useless distractions, and which are essential, even if tangential, to one's job? Some office reads are CLEARLY useful, such as--ahem--Governing, Governing.com and 13th Floor, Governing's blog. But should government workers be allowed to enjoy other blogs, chat rooms, streaming video and similar content on the Internet?
Kentucky's blog blockade has critics from Louisville to Pikeville crying censorship. They argue that blogs are useful news sources-- especially to employees whose jobs require an understanding of which way the political winds are blowing. Critics were especially incensed at apparent inconsistencies in the state's approach. Despite the virtual cordon, some politically oriented blogs, such as the Drudge Report and that of conservative pundit Ann Coulter, continued to squeak through the firewall.
Mark Nickolas, a liberal blogger who likes beating up on Kentucky's Republican governor, Ernie Fletcher, claims that his site, Bluegrass Report, was specifically singled out. Nickolas is suing the state on First Amendment and equal-protection grounds. Meanwhile, his readers have jumped to his defense. "We believe that certain sites were targeted, and one of them was Bluegrass Report," says Charles Wells, executive director of the Kentucky Association of State Employees. "If the administration wants to block all Web sites that don't relate to work, then block them all. Don't be selective."
Kentucky administrators insist that they're not playing favorites. Rather, they say they decided to block broad categories of Web sites after an internal report showed lots of traffic going to sites that seemed unrelated to the business of government. If some blogs got caught in the net and others didn't, it's only because the filtering software Kentucky uses, called Webwasher, is programmed that way. "We blocked entire categories of sites, so to claim that a particular site was singled out is inaccurate," says Jill Midkiff, a spokesman for the state finance agency, which oversees the state computer network. "The intent here is to ensure that state government resources are being used for state government purposes by state employees on state time, to make sure that taxpayers are getting the most for their tax dollars."
In March, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg fired an office assistant when the mayor spotted a game of solitaire on the worker's PC. "The workplace is not an appropriate place for games," Bloomberg said. Others say a reasonable amount of goofing off at work is fine, so long as workers get their jobs done. A New York judge this spring held that an employee of the New York City Department of Education could not be fired on account of his Web surfing. "The Internet has become the modern equivalent of a telephone or a daily newspaper, providing a combination of communication and information that most employees use as frequently in their personal lives as for work," wrote Judge John B. Spooner. "City agencies permit workers to use a telephone for personal calls, so long as this does not interfere with their performance. Many agencies apply the same standard to the use of the Internet for personal purposes."