Thursday, November 01, 2007

Networked bloggers can affect prospects for "lesser" presidential candidates; teachers join in

Today, the Wall Street Journal, on p A1, carried an interesting about the Blue Hampshire blog. The title of the story, by Amy Schatz, suggests the tone: “Have a Laptop? You, Too Cam Swing New Hampshire Race. Self-Appointed Bloggers Get Candidate Face Time: On the Bus with Edwards.”

True, as the Democratic New Hampshire primary approaches in very early 2008, candidates other than absolute front runners find that bloggers, especially in a smaller but influential state, may indeed have a real impact on their chances. If Al Gore suddenly decides to retrace his steps (and follow the example of Schwarzenegger) and return from making movies to “public service,” all of this could quickly become moot point.

The story mentions high school Latin teacher Dean Barker. Now, usually Latin classes have mostly better and more mature students, and the expectation of academic freedom on campus (will it follow through for kids who later face campus speech codes?). The story, however, mentions how he casually goes from copying lesson plans in the teacher’s lounge to spending a half hour with Bill Richardson. If I were a math teacher, and took a half hour off to spend work time on COPA, I probably couldn’t keep my job.

Teacher free speech has long been controversial, and courts have protected if (especially off duty) until it poses some sort of danger to students or undermines the curriculum or educational program. In the Internet age, as we have noted, where kids could find their teachers so easily from home and where parents may, perhaps wrongfully, be offended by what they find, administrators worry a lot these days.

Of course, however, teachers have an absolute right to organize, and unions are usually partisan. It would seem reasonable, then, that the First Amendment would protect teachers who organize or participate in organized online partisan political advocacy offline. Indeed, a political party or partisan entity still has some social respectability and provides some containment to what subject matter might be covered.

When I see a story like this, I also recall that a couple years ago we were all very concerned about McCain-Feingold and how that might affect bloggers (I’ve written in my main blog about how a 2005 Washington Times editorial on this indirectly affected me when I was subbing). The FEC has apparently settled that down. In a general way, if partisan or labor sponsored speech by teachers is more protected than their own personal speech on controversial issues, the effect of the speech on public debate will not be as objective or balanced and will favor special interests. Indeed, the open participation by teachers in this partisan manner could stir the pot of bouillabaisse again.

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