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Blog Blowback, Virginia Style

One of the abiding mysteries of this here blogosphere is the relative invulnerability of blog postings to the forces that have kept the old media in check for the past half-century or so. With very rare exceptions, bloggers have thus far been blessedly free of the libel suits, legal threats, public shaming and other tools that have been used against the excesses of the print and broadcast media.

Now one of Virginia's most prominent and thoughtful bloggers is in hot water at work, and the state government, his employer, is trying to figure out to what extent it can and should hold an employee responsible for the blogging he does on his own time.

Will Vehrs, whose political analysis and random thoughts on things both serious and silly appears primarily on Commonwealth Conservative, one of the state's best political blogs, has been suspended from work for 10 days without pay. The reason: His blog held a caption contest, a good old blogger's standby, in which readers were encouraged to send in their wittiest efforts at labelling a funny photo.

Vehrs himself submitted a slew of captions, and while the Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial page considers them lacking in wit, I figure give the guy a break--they're funny enough.

The contest photo, taken from a newspaper in Martinsville in Virginia's Southside, showed a couple of country singers belting it out in less than alluring fashion, and Vehrs came up with a list of captions poking fun at the backwardness of life in rural Virginny. Not exactly groundbreaking comedy, but hey, it's the web. There's a lot of space to fill.

Problem: Vehrs' day job is as a manager for Virginia's Department of Business Assistance, which, understandably, gets a bit upset at anything that might discourage businesses from investing in the state's less affluent areas. And the photo in question came from a meeting of the Martinsville area's monthly economic development meeting. Uh-oh.

So: There were calls for Vehrs to resign, calls to sack him, and so on. But luckily, there were also many who stepped up to defend Vehrs, arguing that what he blogs on his own time and nickel is his own business as long as it's not breaking any laws or hurting anyone. And anyway, it was all in good fun and lighten up, willya?

The great thing about blogs is that they are indeed a wide-open frontier, and they are also sometimes self-correcting, though that particular feature is wildly exaggerated by the hard-core defenders of the form. I kind of like Vehrs' captions, but that's hardly the point. If I were Vehrs' employer, I'd probably want to sit him down and say, hey buddy, go on and blog all night for all I care, but if you're going to get into the work we do here at the office--economic development--please run it by me first, ok? And to his credit, Vehrs has apologized, profusely and repeatedly, even offering to quit blogging. Which would be a shame, because he's very good at it, and Virginia's political blogging scene is a vibrant and increasingly important piece of the state's politics.

But all of this raises once again the question of how and whether bloggers will and ought to be held responsible for their content. Since most bloggers are individuals in their proverbial pajamas, they don't have the assets that a big media company has, and therefore the most aggrieved readers are far less likely to sue them. But we've all read extremely vile and irresponsible things on the web that wouldn't have a prayer of seeing daylight in print. Somehow, as a society, we've figured out that what you read in blogs just doesn't have the same credibility as what you read in print or from a responsible news organization, so we don't bother to demand corrections or seek a redress of our grievances. And that's fine--going back to the revolutionary era tracts, we've had a long tradition in this country of letting folks mouth off, even untruthfully, in some forums, even as we insist on accuracy and fairness in others.

But as every parent tells (or should tell) their kids, what you put into cyberspace stays there for about an eternity, and anyone who does any hiring these days knows that employers are eagerly checking out applicants' web history, including the idiotic stuff they put on myspace and Facebook when they were 16. So it's blogger beware, for kids, for state employees, for everybody. I don't see any firing offense in what Will Vehrs has done; I don't even see anything worthy of suspension. But I do see yet another warning that what you type on the web is not just for the consumption of your friends and family. As they said a couple of generations ago, the whole world is watching.


By Marc Fisher |  May 11, 2006; 8:30 AM ET
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Comments

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How could Viers have been so dense, tineared or tonedeaf, whatever, that he could not see that what he was doing, even on his own time, reflected poorly on the state that employed him? Not much of a sense of self-preservation there. (And now you can be that everyone in his office will be very careful what they say to him and what situations he is included in.)

Posted by: Jack | May 11, 2006 9:18 AM

I'm a fierce free-speecher, and public servants don't give up those rights - but it doesn't mean they are free from reasonable consequences. He not only insulted his employer's clients, but in doing so, picked on someone "less fortunate than himself", as my mamma used to say. It would be one thing if he mocked another set of clients, the expensive-suit-types at the Tower Club in Tysons Corner. People from that part of the country ("hillbillies")sometimes feel they're the only group it's still OK to make jokes about - they're right; it's the same as racism. Suspension of a State employee for this public cruelty is entirely appropriate.

Posted by: yellowroz | May 11, 2006 9:32 AM

Just keep saying to yourself, "It's just a joke", "It's just a joke". This no more impairs him from doing his job than an alcohol counselor who likes to drink beer.

Posted by: Stick | May 11, 2006 10:43 AM

Entirely appropriate? Are you kidding me? These were just a few captions, right? Granted, he published them on his own blog, but if we go down this road (suspending public servants for expressing their own opinions on their own time), what's next? What if this had been your traditional Letter to the Editor? What if he had made a comment to a friend at his church tea? Where does the Commonwealth -- the birthplace of the Bill of Rights -- get the right to restrict its employees' out-of-work speech?

This is ridiculous, and in fact shows why rural Virginia needs to be mocked -- they obviously still wield a LOT of power in the state, so they can't play the victim card here.

Posted by: OD | May 11, 2006 10:43 AM

The alcohol counselor analogy is tragically flawed.

The true comparison would be to an alcohol counselor who has a publicly available web site that mocks alcoholics. In that instance, I would rightly question his ability to counsel alcoholics.

As for this, I don't know that it affects his job qualifications. As a Virginia taxpayer, however, it's nice to see my tax dollars wasted on some idiot goofing off at work writing captions that are about as funny as getting punched in the face.

Posted by: Inappropriate | May 11, 2006 10:50 AM

As a public employee myself, I have encountered this issue frequently and given it quite some thought. I believe employers *should* respect political speech, e.g. 'the governor is a jerk' or any other opinion. But being just plain mean to citizens? What is this, high school? - What if he *had* mocked African-Americans, would his defenders' support change?

Posted by: yellowroz | May 11, 2006 11:09 AM

What is comes down to is that this guy publicly mocked his employer's clients.

Of course he should be fired. If I worked for, say, Coca Cola, and I said our product sucks and our customers are stupid hicks, I couldn't reasonably expect to keep my job, either.

Posted by: gnubk | May 11, 2006 11:50 AM

Mr. Fisher, thank you for easily the most balanced and thoughtful post on my particular situation and the larger issues and forces that animate it.

You are alone among members of the mainstream media that I would trust to report on this without me being upset that you did not contact me personally. You know the turf and all the holes and tripping hazards that lurk above and below the surface.

There is much, much more to this story. In some ways, those who say I should be summarily fired or those who say "no problem" are the most refreshing because they don't fall into the snare of gray, a briar patch of conflicting priorities where I don't think anyone has found easy answers.

Posted by: Will Vehrs | May 11, 2006 12:21 PM

I have no doubt that Will is a dedicated and productive state employee - when he's not blogging.

I hate to say it, but if Will were blogging about anything other than politics, which is what he does most of the time, this would be a non-issue. The sad part is that the entire incident has become politicized.

However, Will chose to enter the political arena on state time in front of a state computer. That's clearly a conflict of interest like it or not. What if every state employee chose to blog at work the way Will does? To allow it to continue sets a very bad precedent for every state employee.

What's next? Are we supposed to allot 20 minutes every day for state employees to blog? If, so are we supposed to allow them to do it on state computers? Where does it stop?

Posted by: Anan | May 11, 2006 12:55 PM

You've got it all wrong. Vehrs was suspended from work not for the content of his post, but because he was producing his political blog while on the clock as a civil service employee. Nobody begrudges him his opinions - what matters is that the Commonwealth of Virginia does not pay him a salary so that he can sit at his state-provided desk, go on his state-provided computer, and spend time flogging his political philosophy at the same time he is SUPPOSED to be working for the taxpayers.

Posted by: Christopher | May 11, 2006 2:10 PM

The contest was a great idea and I was LOL at some of the captions. Even the photo by itself is funny. If you can't poke fun at campy-looking singers doing country music (or heavy metal, or disco, or rap, or zydeco, or any other iconic style of music), in a blog of all places, what's the world coming to? I guess there's always someone who will take a joke seriously.

Posted by: City Slicker J from Bethesda | May 11, 2006 3:37 PM

Christopher must be on the night shift or home or obviously not at work. But it makes me wonder about people who sit at their desks at work, blogging away about how the state employees are wasting *their* tax dollars blogging away. Talk about a double standard. State employees are already working for peanuts compared to the private sector. Some do it out of a sense of civic duty. Cut them some slack. If they have a spare moment between mind numbing meetings and want to exercize their brains by seeing what goes on in the rest of the world, let them.

Posted by: Truth B Told | May 11, 2006 5:19 PM

I am one of those who strenuously objected to Mr. Vehrs' and others' comments about Martinsville and Henry County. Since that time, I have had the good fortune to speak with Mr. Vehrs on several occasions and am going to be lucky enough to escort him around our area on Monday. I have never wanted him to lose his job, and he has the grace to come to our area and see firsthand the entire picture of what this area offers and also what it needs. As he is on leave from work, he will be able to come as a private citizen. Stay tuned...

Posted by: Mary Rives Brown | May 12, 2006 11:39 AM

The funny thing is, he Will Vehrs could have been going to Martinsville as part of his job for the state economic development board. The area certainly needs the help. But until he got suspended, he was too busy to go to actually do his job because he was spending all his workday posting to his blog. Not just one or two posts, not "on his own time," but tens, dozens, hundreds blog posts at the same time he was employed by the state.

He should be fired.

Posted by: Philip | May 12, 2006 6:22 PM

Philip, there is no "state economic development board." My job does not involve travel.

Just for the record.

Posted by: Will Vehrs | May 12, 2006 10:43 PM

Speaking of Virginia, for information on Harris Miller, see http://harrismillerisnotatruedemocrat.blogspot.com

Posted by: MillerShiller | May 15, 2006 6:38 PM

I'm waaaay too late here, but "Inappropriate" above (comment of May 11, 2006 10:50 AM) has a leaden ear, as it were, for analogy. Pleeease don't ever let him/her/it/them edit your material!

"The alcohol counselor analogy is tragically flawed.

The true comparison would be to an alcohol counselor who has a publicly available web site that mocks alcoholics. In that instance, I would rightly question his ability to counsel alcoholics."

I would submit that the better analogy is an alcohol counselor who makes fun of MADD and other earnest but sometimes comical behavior modification enthusiasts.

Posted by: Bob S. | May 16, 2006 9:34 PM

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