Imagine you groused about the current government to a friend or family member in a letter. Now imagine that letter being sent to every single person in the country.
As reported by Inside Higher Ed, then picked up by Slate, that's more or less what happened to Rachel Slocum, assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, who earlier this month sent an impetuous letter to students about why they couldn't access U.S. Census data in order to complete an assignment.
Imagine Slocum's surprise when her e-mail ended up on television newscasts all over the United States.
In the e-mail, Slocum put the blame directly on the "Republican/Tea Party controlled House of Representatives" for the shutdown that in turn made the U.S. Census Bureau website unavailable.
Much to her surprise, Slocum's letter turned up soon after on Fox News and other newscasts and even in her own hometown paper. How did it happen? A student posted a screenshot of the letter on Twitter.
The letter also stirred up a ruckus on the university campus where Slocum works. University of Wisconsin-La Cross chancellor Joe Gow received multiple complaints and responded with his own e-mail to students, faculty and stuff toward the goal of distancing the learning institution from Slocum's "highly partisan" comments.
Once the e-mail hit the fan, so to speak, Slocum admitted she probably wrote her missive too quickly after hearing her students couldn't access the government site. But she was still aghast that her thoughts would be seen by anybody outside of the classroom.
In a subsequent e-mail exchange with Slate, Slocum said, "This had never happened to me before so it was a new, unexpected and unpleasant experience. And I didn't expect it because my e-mails to students are the boring stuff of 'Why didn't you turn in that' or 'Here are some important points to remember,' rather than anything that might cause fury on the Internet."
Regardless, Slocum's unintended statement to America has some people wondering: Should teachers and professors expect any privacy whatsoever in regard to lectures and communications with students?
Not in this day and age, said, Slocum, who concedes that's "an acknowledgement of fact of the way the Internet works, rather than a normative statement."
But tell that to William Penn, a professor of creator writing at Michigan State University. Penn's teaching duties were reassigned after he went off on what has been described as an anti-Republican "rant" to his students on the first day of class in August.
And remember the story about Santiago Pinon? The assistant professor religion at Texas Christian University made headlines last month after a student he invited (via e-mail) to a study session for "students of color only" posted the message on her Facebook page. Within hours, the discriminatory invitation went viral.
All of which reopens the old argument about free speech versus freedom of the press, but Slocum isn't too thrilled by the concept of watchdog groups.
"Can students rightfully make public professors' e-mails? I assume it's free speech," she said. "There may be times when it could constitute whistle-blowing, which absolutely should be protected … but I think it is wrong for students to step outside the university's internal complaint process and let the court of public opinion judge professors."
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to credit Inside Higher Ed as the originator of this story.