Ooooops!

Andrew Cockburn afc at gnv.ifas.ufl.edu
Mon Feb 28 10:53:56 EST 1994


In article <1994Feb26.210102.15149 at news.yale.edu>, una at peaplant.biology.yale.edu (Una Smith) writes:
> 
> As someone who has worked for both the USDA and an independent government
> agency (the Smithsonian) for several years, I may be able to offer a
> useful perspective here.  The issue of on what authority a person speaks
> can be difficult.  For example, government employees must be very careful
> about whether or not they use goverment letterhead when writing critical
> opinions, even in private letters to others.  The line between your own
> professional opinion and your role as a representative of an organization
> is often very hard to define.  And when the opinion is expressed on a
> topic that is outside the venue of the person's job, and perhaps outside
> her area of expertise as well, then a new problem crops up:  is there 
> any place for goverment (or other) employees to be making public statements
> of personal, private opinion during working hours and using computer
> facilities provided by the employer?  Academics enjoy extreme freedom in
> what they may say and do as part of their profession;  this is not true
> of most workers.
> 
> However, this instance involves a claim by the former employer, the Nat.
> Agricultural Library that (1) Usenet is equivalent to a newspaper, and
> (2) the NAL has the right and/or obligation to promote and enforce
> political positions taken by another (parent) agency of the United States
> government.
> 
> Well, (1) is patently rediculous, and reveals that whoever wrote the
> article denouncing Ms. Wiggert doesn't know what he or she is talking
> about.
> 
> (2) is a very serious problem, however.  The NAL is *not* a policy-
> setting agency of the US government, and certainly has no place 
> promoting the merits of one researcher's findings over another's.
> This appears to me to be an extremely inappropriate attempt to assume
> the authority of another agency, not to mention the attempt to use
> that borrowed authority to publicly humiliate an individual employee.
> 
> Ms. Wiggert may have been at fault for any of a number of reasons,
> including not adding a disclaimer to her articles, but, in my opinion,
> her actions in no way justify or excuse the highly unethical and
> inappropriate behavior of her former superior at the NAL. 
> 
> -- 
> 	Una Smith			smith-una at yale.edu
> 
> Department of Biology, Yale University, New Haven, CT  06520-8104  USA

As someone who currently works for the USDA, I think that your analogy
in the second paragraph is inaccurate.  What Ms. Wiggert did is the
same as if she had sent out the message on government stationery (e.g.
the address was something like wiggert at nal.usda.gov).  As you point out in
the first paragraph, this is a big no-no, since it implies that her opinion
is the official opinion of the Ag library.  If she had included a disclaimer, 
she would also have been using government computers to send personal 
messages, a lesser no-no.

If the Ag library had criticized her for sending messages from another
computer (for example a university or Compuserve account) then I think
that her freedom of speech would have been abused.

Andrew Cockburn
USDA/ARS

The above is my personal opinion, and was transmitted from the University of
Florida computer system.



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