Ky. Governor Unblocks Blogs

    March 21, 2008
    WebProNews Staff

Kentucky’s newly elected Democratic Governor Steve Beshear lifted a ban set in place by former Governor Ernie Fletcher that barred state employees from accessing blogs on state computers. Fletcher’s move was a controversial one that led to national press coverage of allegations that he was trying to silence critics, and a federal lawsuit filed by a Kentucky gadfly blogger.

Steve Beshear, Kentucky Democratic GovernorSteve Beshear, Kentucky Democratic Governor
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WebProNews spoke with the Governor’s spokeswoman, Vicki Glass, about the details of Beshear’s reversal. "Gov. Beshear felt that access to political sites was something government employees could be trusted not to abuse. Those sites that Fletcher blocked, Gov. Beshear is unblocking."

That includes lifting gateway-level bans on political, religious, and sports blogs, as well as shopping websites. Ms. Glass said access to shopping sites like eBay was important for state employees who make purchasing decisions. Access to gambling, dating, pornography, and computer game sites will remain blocked however, including social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook.

The full list of blocked sites was not readily available because the person who handles that specifically was out for observation of the Good Friday holiday. Ms. Glass wasn’t able to define exactly how a MySpace personal profile was different from a blog, but it was clear that the Governor’s office differentiated social networking sites from political blogs and other topical sources. Access to MySpace and Facebook are blocked at the gateway level.

"For what are considered political blogs," she said, "the ban was lifted because they often discuss what’s going on in state government." Beshear felt government employees should have access to relevant information and discussions.

That doesn’t mean they should be allowed to comment on blogs while on the state’s dime, though. Ms. Glass confirmed that commentary during the workday was still prohibited. "The Finance Cabinet," which is in charge of the policy, felt, "that is not a good use of employee time. They can do that on their personal time."

Ms. Glass was also Gov. Beshear’s spokeswoman during his gubernatorial campaign in 2007. According to an AP report, Gov. Fletcher made physical contact with Ms. Glass during a press conference by trying to push her arm away while she attempted to tape record his remarks. She had no comment, though, about anything else regarding Fletcher, including the former technology commissioner Michael Inman’s sworn statement that Fletcher’s executive cabinet secretary, Robbie Rudolph, instituted the ban as political retaliation against critical bloggers.

At the center of that controversy is Mark Nickolas, who founded the BluegrasssReport blog. Inman said under oath that Fletcher’s administration targeted Nickolas specifically. Nickolas has since filed a federal lawsuit, which is still pending, claiming such actions by the state are an unconstitutional violation of free speech.

WebProNews also spoke with Mr. Nickolas, who says the "amateurish" government ban just helped get him more attention. "This closes a sad chapter on the legacy of the Fletcher Administration [which felt] the best way to deal with criticism was to silence it. They made what I did so much more prominent. It became a national story."

The attention also may have helped Nickolas take his political blogging to a national level as well. Though the BluegrassReport is still up and running, he was recruited by former CNET CEO Shelby Bonnie to head up Nickolas denies his lawsuit is about disallowing employers from monitoring and controlling what sites employees can access while on the job. Instead, it’s about not allowing government to silence political speech.

"Imagine it wasn’t a blog," he said, "but a written pamphlet handed out at the Capitol by hand. Imagine a Republican pamphleteer walks up the steps with me. Imagine they block one [pamphleteer] from entering and not the other. That’s when the government is applying a filter to political speech based on content."

Rush Limbaugh’s website, for example, was not blocked by Fletcher’s Administration. Nickolas likened blogs to talk radio shows, labeling both genres "opinion journalism."

Freedom of speech and the blogosphere were the focus of another nationally-covered snafu on the part of the state government. Recently, Rep. Tim Couch introduced a bill to the state legislature that would ban anonymous online commentary. Rep. Couch said it was just "to make a statement" about online bullying and that he didn’t expect the bill to succeed or to be enforceable if it did.

"The notion that government is threatened by speech is scary," said Nickolas, who called Rep. Couch a "blowhard." "We should be clamoring for more speech not less….Kentucky has enough problems to deal with that require real legislative leadership."