E-mail shreds what took years, in seconds

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For something that occupies increasing hours of our lives, it only takes seconds for e-mail to cause catastrophe. Just ask David Watson, the now ex-vice chairman of the Brunswick Town Council, whose hasty click of the “send” button in his e-mail embroiled him in controversy.

On Jan. 14, the day before the nation celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Watson forwarded a risqué e-mail to members of the school building committee. The e-mail had pictures of topless women, and informed recipients about “National Women’s Breast Awareness Day.”

The e-mail concluded, according to the Falmouth Forecaster, as follows: “Beats the [censored] out of Martin Luther King Day doesn’t it?”

Oops. Can’t bring an e-mail back when it’s gone.

Watson has been duly censured, as well. He stepped down as vice chairman of the board, and said he’s felt troubled every day since transmitting the e-mail.

“Some of it is tremendous humor,” Watson told the Forecaster about the jokes entering his in-box. “Some of it goes dark. I try to discard the dark stuff.”

Bare-breasted women and degrading a national holiday isn’t “dark?”

We’d call it sleazy, and why he would forward it to others is baffling.

Officials in Jay learned this uncomfortable lesson in 2002, when a school committee member, in e-mail banter with the Jay High School principal, said “I think I might have to punch his lights out,” about a school teacher. The remark was made regarding heated contract negotiations, which is public business. Oops again.

Watson and this Jay school committee member probably felt they were amusing. It doesn’t matter with public officials; the intent of the sender evaporates against the heat of the message.

The ease of e-mail use is fostering its abuse. “Oh, it’s just an e-mail,” is no excuse for disseminating improper materials. Perhaps we can’t prevent genital enhancement or pornographic material from cluttering our collective in-boxes, but we can slow it down by declining to pass it along, as Watson should have done.

A new study says American professionals spend 40 percent of their workday on e-mail, with one third considered it wasted time. Experts say this costs companies billions in lost productivity, and some corporations now train employees on healthy e-mail habits.

A similar program is part of recommended legislation to make Freedom of Access Act training mandatory for lawmakers during their indoctrination; a presentation of the bill is scheduled for Feb. 6 before the Judiciary Committee. The state’s Web site about freedom of access, www.maine.gov/foaa, also has a guide for all officials on public record laws.

“Any record, regardless of the form in which it is maintained by an agency or official, can be a public record,” the state say plainly. With e-mail, the guiding principles are even more simple:

If you’re public, it’s public. If there’s even a question on the content, don’t push “send.”

You can’t get it back.

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