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January 12, 2005
Rule #1: Don't Blog About Work Unless You Own The Place

Today's Guardian (UK) reports on the first apparent British blogger to lose his job over his online journal. Joe Gordon worked for Waterstone's, a bookstore in Edinburgh, for eleven years and by all accounts was a valued employee -- or at least he was until he nicknamed his manager "Evil Boss" and called the store Bastardstones on his blog:

A bookseller has become the first blogger in Britain to be sacked from his job because he kept an online diary in which he occasionally mentioned bad days at work and satirised his "sandal-wearing" boss. ...

"This wasn't a sustained attack," Mr Gordon told the Guardian. "I was not deliberately trying to harm the company. I was venting my spleen. This was moaning about not getting your birthday off or not getting on with your boss. I wasn't libelling anyone or giving away trade secrets." ...

Named after Monty Python's fictional University of Woolloomooloo, the blog contains the typical musings of online diarists across the world, linking to interesting websites and sounding off about current affairs and favourite films. There is much to please Waterstone's: most of the blog is devoted to extolling the virtues of reading and Mr Gordon's favourite science fiction and graphic novels.

In the past two months, the bookseller, who helped set up a branch of Waterstone's, ran bookclubs and appeared on radio and TV for his company, mentioned his work twice.

On one occasion, he ranted about his "sandal-wearing" manager he nicknamed "Evil Boss", which he said was a caricature like the "Pointy Haired Boss" in the Dilbert cartoons. In another posting, Mr Gordon joked about "Bastardstone's".

On his blog, Gordon has written several posts about his termination and his struggle to get Waterstone to change its mind. One of his customers (an author himself, and one of Gordon's readers) analogizes his blog to "private conversation overheard in a pub" (also mentioned in the Guardian story) and claims that his termination is an attack on free speech. While I have some sympathy for Gordon and his plight and think that Waterstone may have overreacted a little, that argument not only doesn't work as an analogy, it shows a fundamental - and common - misunderstanding of free speech.

Free speech means a person is free to say whatever they want without fear of government sanction or prepublication censorship. It does not mean that a person is free from the consequences of his speech, a point that Hollywood stars also seem to miss whenever they feel the financial effects of the political activism that alienates broad swaths of their audience. Gordon has the freedom to call his manager Evil Boss in print and to call Waterstone whatever he wants. However, when his company finds out that he bad-mouths them in print - which, after all, has the added liability of handy proof of his speech - they have the right to terminate him for doing so, as long as they follow the terms of the union contract which governs his employment. That doesn't infringe on his right to speak his mind; it just reinforces Waterstone's right to associate with whom they choose. His speech can reasonably be construed to show disloyalty and an inability to work with his supervisor, as well as defamation and insubordination.

Morgan's analogy doesn't hold up, either. A blog may be many things, but it is hardly a private conversation. Its very nature shows its intent as a public statement. It equates to a newsletter, from which Gordon's blog actually derived originally. Had the comments occurred in an e-mail which got forwarded around without Gordon's permission, that would come much closer to Morgan's argument, and I doubt Waterstone would have fired Gordon over it. But obviously, Gordon intended on offering his opinions to the public, including Waterstone's clientele, indicating some intent to harm, even if only temporary. In fact, having Morgan comment on the situation as an author and a client of Waterstone does more damage to Gordon than assistance, and Gordon should consider that.

Gordon seems like a nice chap and a pretty good writer, and I hope he lands on his feet. But in this case, Gordon was wrong and should admit it rather than hide behind bogus free-speech arguments. Bloggers should understand that publicizing their work environment carries real risk, unless they happen to be the man or woman at the top.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 12, 2005 4:56 AM

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