On one side of the controversy, school officials have complained for months about the mushrooming volume of e-mail messages they must process. Dutiful public servants are obliged to respond to an inquiring public. But no longer must you make the effort to walk in to the district offices to make a request, or even write a letter or make a phone call. Now, with a keystroke, you can fire off a message in cyberspace, copying as many recipients as you desire for a unilaterally-called virtual meeting. And by virtue of the ease with which you can make a request, you expect a similarly instantaneous response.
At least two citizens have availed themselves of the technology prolifically in recent months. One writer, Bill McCall, is a regular attendee of school board meetings. In between meetings, he's on his computer. His pointed questions to board members and administrators came several times daily through the summer. A file kept of his e-mail correspondence by Superintendent W. Ray Richardson amounted to 369,398 words worth of commentary between October 2002 and October 2005. Moreover, his messages have been copied to a list of upwards of 50 recipients, presumably to engage those who McCall believes to be interested in or central to the debate.
Similarly, resident Brian Dorn, formerly project manager for a school district construction project who has sued the district over his discharge and over his right to participate as a public citizen, has kept administrators busy satisfying public records requests at the same time as he has pushed school board members to consider potential problems with building contracts or performance.
The volume of the requests and their critical nature have raised the ire of many on the list, quite apart from whether either Dorn or McCall are right. The sheer time involved in reading, researching and responding to the traffic is substantial. Finance director Kurt Subra estimated earlier this year that he spends 70 percent of his time handling requests for public information.
And so some people party to the messaging have gone so far as to characterize it as harassment and have explored police protection. But the most common defense mounted by those who have reached overload is to ask to be removed from the list. McCall, to his credit, has obliged.
The messages have created some formal problems as well. School board members are prohibited by law from meeting as a group via e-mail. So a policy response to a message copied to all board members becomes a potential violation.
Recently, messaging has taken an even uglier tone.
A new sender or group of senders has begun spamming inboxes across town with commentary not on the district but on the gadflies. Calling himself, or herself, "Bill McDorn," an amalgam of the names of the two vocal critics, a new writer has taken to lampoons, likening the district criticism to that of the boy who cried wolf, or baiting the critics by demanding that administrators should engage in trafficking pornography. His targets are not amused.
Further, some message writer has gone so far as to identify himself as David Putz, a Roosevelt School student parent who was active in opposing the closing of that school earlier this year. The letter writer also signed the text of the message as Mary Ann Dilla.
The real David Putz called to say he authored no such text and finds the appropriation of his identity not only offensive but illegal.
Clearly, this whole thing is over the edge.
E-mail is only a tool. But like fire or a gun, it must be used judiciously. We're all getting to know the collateral damage it can cause.
In his book "Interpersonal Divide," Director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Iowa State University Michael Bugeja explores the qualitative changes in how we interact in an electronic age. He writes that "Media appliances and computer technology displace us in the confines of our homes," and that "The availability sets up false expectations that others with e-mail, mobile phones and Internet access should be contacting us or replying quickly to our messages."
As members of the Fourth Estate and as not only users but promulgators of media, which includes technologies as old as wood pulp and as new as Web blogs, we reject any limitations on public access to public business. New tools to increase public involvement ought to be welcomed.
At the same time, we need to learn the limitations and ramifications of our approach. At the other end of a string of electrons is not a microprocessor. It is a person.
An escalating pattern has evolved, from criticism to harassment to satire to pseudonyms to identity theft. This has gone too far.