New York's Facebook Race Fracas - InformationWeek
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7/29/2009
02:37 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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New York's Facebook Race Fracas

A young aide to a New York City politician joined the long parade of people who've learned the hard way that what you say on the Internet matters. Lee Landor, until recently deputy press secretary to Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer, posted comments on her personal Facebook page criticizing Henry Louis Gates and the President, and apparently defending racial profiling

A young aide to a New York City politician joined the long parade of people who've learned the hard way that what you say on the Internet matters. Lee Landor, until recently deputy press secretary to Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer, posted comments on her personal Facebook page criticizing Henry Louis Gates and the President, and apparently defending racial profilingGates, an African-American Harvard University professor, was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge in his own home this month. He was unable to get into his house because the front door was jammed. A neighbor saw him breaking in and called the police, and a confrontation ensued, after which Gates was led off in handcuffs. Charges against Gates were later dropped. President Obama criticized the Cambridge police department in strong terms, and later backpedaled.

Landor criticized Gates and Obama, whom she called "O-dumb-a":

Ms. Landor wrote in one post, "O-dumb-a, the situation got 'out of hand' because Gates is a racist, not because the officer was DOING HIS JOB!"

In response to one Facebook user who voiced disagreement, Ms. Landor referred to Professor Gates using a vulgarity and added: "And racial profiling does exist, but for good reason. Take a look at this country's jails: who makes up the majority of inmates? Exactly."

Landor's boss quickly distanced his office from Landor's comments:

"Ms. Landor's comments were totally inappropriate and in direct contradiction to the views of the borough president and his office," Dick Riley, Mr. Stringer's communications director, said in a statement on Monday evening. "The borough president has accepted Ms. Landor's resignation, effective immediately."

The idiocy of Landor's comments is apparent, they are thoroughly and appallingly ignorant and wrongheaded. This is not to say that Gates and Obama are above criticism-you can make an argument that they were wrong. Landor, however, is not making that argument.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about. I'm here to talk about the issue of employee accountability for things they say on their private Internet pages, on their own time. Landor works for a Democratic borough president; she criticized a popular Democratic American president. She made comments that would surely alienate African-American voters in a city that has a large and vocal African-American voting population. Even if she was right, she'd still have been in trouble.

Landor's story is a reminder to government IT managers everywhere that the Internet is a public forum. Even if you're writing a private message, intended only for a few intimate friends, it has a way of getting out. A few years ago, we saw a string of people publicly fired after slagging their employers, the most notable of whom, Heather Armstrong, put the incident behind her and made a successful career as a blogger. Armstrong writes about the incident in her typical insightful, funny style:

I started this website in February 2001. A year later I was fired from my job for this website because I had written stories that included people in my workplace. My advice to you is BE YE NOT SO STUPID. Never write about work on the internet unless your boss knows and sanctions the fact that YOU ARE WRITING ABOUT WORK ON THE INTERNET. If you are the boss, however, you should be aware that when you order Prada online and then talk about it out loud that you are making it very hard for those around you to take you seriously.

Government IT managers need to understand-and need to ensure other government employees understand-that speech on the Internet is public, even if it's on a person's private Facebook page or blog. Sure, the things you say on a Facebook page or personal blog probably won't get out beyond a few close friends and family. Probably. But sometimes they do get out, and when that happens, you'll be held accountable for them.

Anil Dash, a vice president at blogging software vendor Six Apart, addressed this issue four years ago when stories about people getting fired for blogging were making headlines. He said, provocatively, nobody's ever been fired for blogging:

How can you test this hypothesis? Take a person's words, and guess what would happen if you took the exact same words or ideas and sent them to the public via letter to the editor, streetcorner soapbox, or pony express. Would they still get you canned? Then you weren't fired for blogging. I haven't seen a convincing example of a situation where this wasn't true yet. And believe me, in my line of work, I hear about every person that gets "fired for blogging".


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