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Court Protects Teachers' Private E-Mails

The recent Wisconsin Supreme Court decision affirming the right to keep personal e-mail messages sent from work computers private is just the latest news relating to an ed-tech issue that is easy to understand, but hard to take sides on.

In this particular case, the state's high court overruled a lower-court decision that upheld a citizen's request in the Wisconsin Rapids School District for e-mails from the personal accounts of five teachers.

The issue may seem simple enough: Do school employees have an expectation of privacy when sending personal messages from public computers? But the potential scenarios where the question could arise have such vastly different contexts that it's hard to imagine a uniform policy in any district that could meet demands for fairness and objectivity at the same time.

On the one hand, school computers just flat out aren't a teacher's property. And common sense says not to expect to live in a vacuum when using any property that isn't yours. So, in general, it's probably best to avoid using a school computer for anything personal.

But on the other, isn't it also common sense that an employer provide the employee reasonable working conditions? One where employees are allowed contact with friends and family during break hours?

Further, while some view e-mail and other Web communication as secondary or tertiary to phone calls and in-person discussions, many among us have missed cellphone calls and pages only to respond to an e-mail later. (An expert I interviewed for a special report story on the values of synchronous and asynchronous online learning raised the issue like this: If a student returns an e-mail in 5 seconds and an instant message in 50, which one is in real time?)

Think of it this way: If you're an elementary teacher with a high-school aged son or daughter who has a rehearsal after school, and the best way to reach them is on their Blackberry via e-mail, does the public have a right to know when and where you pick them up, or what you're going to make them for dinner? And is there a reason that information is more acceptable to discuss over school telephone lines than school Internet networks?

For every hypothetical like that, of course, you could match it with a tale of an employee abusing school equipment for personal use and neglecting his or her job. The question looms on whether you write usage policies based on the best-case or worst-case scenario.

For more about e-mail and other technology privacy issues for school staff, check out my colleague Katie Ash's story from last November on school policies requiring teachers to record electronic interactions with students, or our legal-issues blogger Mark Walsh's take on this case from when it first popped up on the Wisconsin court's docket.

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