Sunday, January 08, 2006

FIRST AMENDMENT: Dvry professor's firing after blog post in Denver echos around Internet


By Jennifer Brown
The Denver Post

DENVER, Colo. -- Meg Spohn says she was fired from DeVry University because of comments she posted on her Web blog. Since she blogged about her firing, her site has drawn much more interest, she says. The professor at DeVry University in Westminster who says she was fired for criticizing the school on her blog is stirring up an academic freedom debate in the blogosphere.

Thousands of academics are bloggers, keeping online journals on everything from their strides in research to travel escapades and political rants. Many say what happened at DeVry, a private, for-profit university, wouldn't happen at traditional public universities that foster critical thinking and robust debate protected by the First Amendment.

Still, some professors have been asked to tone down their blogs and others - especially those without tenure - say they censure themselves to protect their students or employment. "The self-censorship, the chilling effect - I know it exists because people talk about it online," said Sam Smith, a blogger who taught journalism last year at St. Bonaventure University in New York. "There may be things that they could say that would cost them tenure," he said. "In the academic world, this shouldn't ever be an issue. In reality, that's not always the case."

Since Spohn blogged about her firing from DeVry on, the story has become fodder for bloggers across the world. The number of hits on her site went from a couple dozen to thousands, she said. "It's kind of a freight train," Spohn said. "And I was expecting a little red wagon."

Spohn's blog recounted her travels across the United States and her thoughts on n chaos theory. She mentioned DeVry occasionally, complained about online training she thought was unnecessary and wrote that administrators were telling her not to inflate grades. "The university environment is more permissive about free speech than most corporations," Spohn said. "Do I think it's cool for professors to get on their blog and say, 'Don't come to this university. Everything about it sucks?' No. I did nothing like that."

24.5 million blogs

The popularity of blogging has exploded in the past year. San Francisco-based Technorati is tracking 24.5 million blogs, and the number doubled every five months in 2005, marketing director Derek Gordon said. "It's very seductive to think of the Internet as a private space," said Lynn Schofield Clark, a University of Colorado journalism professor who teaches her students to blog. "It feels that way when you're writing it. It's easy to forget that it's a public fora." It's impossible to tell how many bloggers are academics, but it's safe to say there are thousands testing the blogosphere as the latest frontier for academic freedom.

A blogging controversy at Indiana University in Bloomington two years ago grabbed some attention in cyberspace among academics. An economics professor removed his blog from university servers after being accused of posting anti-gay comments that offended administrators. That case is one of a handful "where blogs have had an impact on the professional careers of academics," said Henry Farrell, a political science professor at George Washington University and part of the academic group blog Crooked Timber.

Smith said he "raised mortal hell" on his blog when he worked at St. Bonaventure, a Catholic university. He once toned down "naughty" words on his blog after an administrator noted some discomfort, and he expects that similar conversations between faculty and administrators happen across the country. "I was a pretty aggressive commentator on social issues, politics, culture, religion," he said. "I did not criticize the institution. I haven't done that since I left."

DeVry administrators aren't talking about why they fired Spohn, saying they respect her right to confidentiality.

Spohn, who has a master's degree from Harvard and is a doctoral student at the University of Denver, said she was popular among faculty and was promoted last fall to chairwoman of the communications department. Then last month, the dean and a human resources staffer told her they "had become aware of her blog," she said, and that she wrote "disparaging things about DeVry and the students. They escorted me to my office and shoved me right out of the building," she said.

Protected speech

The American Association of University Professors has no specific guidelines on blogging, but says it falls into the same category as all protected speech, including op-ed pieces for newspapers and online essays, said Jonathan Knight, director of the academic freedom and tenure program. "Faculty have the right to express themselves vigorously and freely," he said, including about the university's policies and leadership.

Many blogging professors censure themselves so they don't hurt students or attack administrators unfairly, said Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor who operates one of the larger academic group blogs, the Volokh Conspiracy. But when faculty see wrongs, they shouldn't hold back, he said. "I wouldn't be afraid to post critical things about UCLA for fear of rretaliation, but I feel something of a duty of loyalty to the university," he said. "If UCLA tried to restrict the speech of my colleagues or my students, I would take it to task."

Staff writer Jennifer Brown can be reached at 303-820-1593 or

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