Long-time columnist Al Cross is considered the dean of Kentucky journalism. Mostly retired from print, these days Mr. Cross details the challenges of rural journalism on a Web log or "blog."
In his view, it's the kind of up-to-date dialogue of policy issues that everyone in state government should be reading. But over the past two weeks, Cross's site became a casualty of "blacklisting" blogs as well as humor, religion, and online auction websites after it was deemed that state workers were spending too much time on the Internet.
Bloggers, the self-described Thomas Paines of the Internet age, charge that Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) is violating their right to free speech by censoring their content from the 34,000 state employees. But others see a more subtle lesson in Kentucky's attempt to crack down on desktop dawdling, including how much bosses should do to restrict access to opinion sites – and what blocking access to blogs might mean for everything from esprit de corps to the bottom line.
"Whether in [private or public] workplaces, are you going to create a culture of mutual trust or a Big Brother 'we're watching your every move' environment?" says Zachary Hummel, a workplace attorney at Bryan Cave LLP in New York. "We now have so much more ability to monitor what employees do, the question becomes: How much of that do we want to do?"
Kentucky bloggers, especially of Democratic stripes, have been critical of Governor Fletcher's administration. One of the main chroniclers of perceived government missteps is Mark Nickolas, a Democratic political insider. After Mr. Nickolas criticized the governor in a New York Times article June 20, some 1,000 state workers who check his blog, bluegrassreport.org, could no longer log on to it at work.
State officials say blocking Nickolas's site coincided with the state's blocking access to categories of sites that are considered time- wasting, including humor and sports sites. But restricting access to these sites has been spotty: Last week, state employees could log onto the "Simpsons" site, but not a Jewish website.
Such arbitrary results open the administration up to criticism, some say, especially when the blogs of Nickolas and Cross were blocked while the conservative Drudge Report website was not.
Central to the constitutional case – which Nickolas says he may challenge in court – is the question of whether blogs enjoy the same First Amendment protections as newspapers, which can be read on state computers. Blogs, too, discuss local policy and politics, and bloggers and state employees say they are protected by the First Amendment.
"Government should defend the right of conservatives and liberals to post opinions and what [the Fletcher administration] is doing, we believe, is using the government to hurt a political web site because of its political opinion," says Charles Wells, the head of the Kentucky state employees' union. "The only ones this information is offensive to is this administration," says Mr. Wells.
Nevertheless, experts say that employers have wide latitude in telling workers how to spend their time. And blogs, known for constant updates, can consume more of employees' time since readers may go back several times a day. But banning any blog is a bad idea, especially when there are political overtones as in Nickolas's case, says Glenn Reynolds, author of "An Army of Davids" about the rise of a tech-enabled entrepreneurial class. "It looks petty, and it's probably ineffective," he says.
For their part, efficiency experts say Fletcher's administration is right to crack down on excessive blog-reading.
"I hear all this talk about the implementation of these technologies being some form of censorship, but there's nothing whatsoever keeping anybody from doing it when they go home," says Paul Henry, "security evangelist" at Secure Computing, a content filtering firm in San Diego. His company makes the WebWasher software Kentucky uses to "blacklist" websites.
But to workplace observers, Kentucky's blocking of blogs is an example of how the Internet – and the high-speed connections usually available at work – is changing how managers deal with workplace culture. "We're coming to grips with where the boundaries are," says Mr. Hummel.
Some states don't mind incidental use of various websites. Alabama, South Dakota, and North Carolina allow state employees to log on occasionally as long as it doesn't interfere with work. "We try to treat people as adults," says Otto Doll, South Dakota's chief information officer.
A year ago, Alabama had no content filtering, and technology officials were told not to be the "moral police," says Alabama CIO Jim Burns. Some categories of sites, including pornography and gambling, are now blocked, he says, but not blogs.
"This case [in Kentucky] demonstrates a large issue that everybody in the American workplace ought to care about and when it comes to the government everybody ought to care about it," says Cross, now the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.