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Lawyers have obligation to defend free speech on blogs

The firing of a DeVry University professor prompted an article in the Denver Post about the First Amendment rights of academic bloggers.

Meg 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.

Is it 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.

Lawyers have an obligation to defend First Amendment rights. Heck, I would think solely by our being members of the bar we’ve accepted some responsibility to come to the defense of one of the core principals in America, free speech.

I am not saying we ought to drop everything and take on clients in this situation. However, we can blog the issue as a group of lawyers and criticize the firm or institution. That’ll bring a lot of weight to bear. Not only will the word of what lawyers blog and comment on spread across the Internet, it’ll bubble up to the main stream media where the story can be played out in newspapers and on television.

Look at what happened in this case.

Since Meg Spohn blogged about her firing from DeVry on MEGABLOG, 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.”

Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA and the leader of the high profile Volokh Conspiracy blog, does not intend to hold back on such matters.

I wouldn’t be afraid to post critical things about UCLA for fear of retaliation, but I feel something of a duty of loyalty to the university. If UCLA tried to restrict the speech of my colleagues or my students, I would take it to task.

Jeff Jarvis has challenged me to motivate lawyers to defend bloggers who may be the victim of law suits. He says we ought to have something akin to a bloggers defense fund. I tend to agree with him. Though I know from experience lawyers are going to be slow entering an appearance in a law suit for fear of the huge time and expense.

But on this one, all we lawyers have to do is blog. Only takes a few minutes and the courage to take a stand.

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