For years, one of the easiest gotchas in journalism has been to find some public officials who used public resources to further their own political ends, which is against state law. A governor or attorney general churning out campaign brochures on a state copy machine? Perfect. But a lowly part-time community college teacher doing nothing more than sending an e-mail from her school's computer about a couple of education bills? According to today's ruling by the state Appeals Court, that's illegal too.
Teresa Knudsen had taught English courses at Spokane Community College for 17 years in 2005 when she sent out a mass e-mail to faculty members at all of the city's community colleges. She urged her colleagues to write their legislators supporting two bills that would offer tenure-like job security to part-time staff like her.
Brought before the state Executive Ethics Board, she argued that the e-mail constituted "de minimis" use of state resources. In other words, it was no big deal and cost the state little or nothing--which seems true enough. At the time, though, she seemed alert enough to the sensitivities at hand that she cautioned other faculty members to use their personal e-mail accounts when lobbying on this issue. Why she didn't heed her own advice is anybody's guess.
And unfortunately for Knudsen, while the state generally allows minimal use of its resources for personal reasons--it's okay to call your kids to make sure they got home from school safely, for instance, according to the Ethics Board's website--that doesn't hold when politics is involved, even when you're lobbying not just for yourself but a whole group of people.
Ironically, she lost her position soon after writing the e-mail seeking to rally support for job protections. The ruling doesn't say whether her e-mail was the reason. But you got to wonder whether the college--who according to Knudsen was annoyed at her for speaking out about faculty she believed were treated like second class citizens-- nailed her with its own gotcha.