Thursday, January 10, 2008

Listserve Shenanigans Make the News

I gave a talk a couple of months ago where one of the important points was the effect that the Internet has had on the school community. Parents join these groups -- they're always Yahoo groups, but they are often called listserves, sometimes spelled "listserv" from the original Unix -- to stay involved with the school. Teachers, administrators, sometimes students join too, and this is where they can ask their questions, voice their gripes. I think you could say actually started on the Albert Einstein High School listserve, a number of us made contact there initially, before we knew each other.

The groups are hosted at Yahoo, and you think of them as being independent. But somebody has to set it up, somebody is listed as the administrator, they can delete posts, add and remove members, whatever, there's a lot of stuff you can do. See what you think about this situation:
When Suzanne Weiss left the Parent Teacher Student Association of Cabin John Middle School, the school e-mail list went with her.

Weiss said the list belonged to her. PTSA leaders said the CJCougarEmail list belonged to them. They started a rival mailing group, which competes with Weiss's for Cabin John parents.

Over the past few years, electronic mailing lists have become the main forum for parents across the region to talk about their schools. With just a few keystrokes, the lists offer parents unprecedented power to spread information, to ask a question or answer one, to praise or pillory for an audience of hundreds.

As school e-mail lists multiply in size and reach, they are increasingly becoming ensnared in contests for control of the medium and the message. Principals are accused of trying to silence their discussion-group critics. Parents have allegedly stolen or hijacked e-mail lists. Moderators who step in to halt vitriolic threads are sometimes accused of censorship. As PTA Groups Move Online, So Does Dissension

My kids went to two different high schools, and I was always fascinated by the difference in the listserves. At Rockville, the whole point of the listserve was for parents to ingratiate themselves to teachers. If anybody ever had a complaint or brought up something controversial, they were drummed out by the others, who always said their Inbox was too full for that stuff, or they would say the comment was "inappropriate." It was fine to say "Kudos to Mrs. Wallenstein's history class for having three winners in the All-State essay contest," but for instance if a teacher was charged with a hate crime nobody wanted to talk about it.

Einstein, on the other hand, had a wild listserve -- people were always ready to voice an opinion over there, and they'd argue for days over the smallest point. They actually had to set up an alternate listserve just for announcements and things. Personally, I liked Einstein's approach better, after a while you felt like you knew those people and there were some interesting points made. And some not so interesting, but whatever, I think "diversity" is a good word to describe Einstein, and the listserv was an example of that.
Some of the most contentious school controversies of recent years have played out largely on e-mail lists: reaction over a plan to distribute hip flasks as a senior gift in 2006 at Arlington County's H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program; debate about military recruitment at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda in 2005; and discontent, this winter, with a $50 graduation fee at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.

"It's the new venue. It's the new community forum," said Pat Elder, a Whitman parent who protested the presence of military recruiters on the Whitcom mailing list. "We're too busy to, you know, meet."

Weiss, of Potomac, started an e-mail list for Cabin John Middle School in 2003, when she was PTSA president. Over time, she expanded it to include information about the larger feeder system and Montgomery schools on the whole, spending more and more time tending the Yahoo group. Then came a new principal, who was less involved in the e-mail list than the last. The school and its e-mail group became, in a way, estranged.

New PTSA leaders found no way to challenge Weiss for control of the list. She was listed as sole owner on the Yahoo Web site.

"Give it back to them? It never belonged to them," Weiss said.

Interesting. She's right, of course. You sign up for it, you appoint yourself administrator, your password is the only one that works ... it's yours.

Of course, it goes without saying, this isn't very nice of her.

A letter to the editor of The Post made a good point:
Suzanne Weiss is wrong. She does not own the CJCougarEmail list she created while president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at Cabin John Middle School; the PTSA does.

An e-mail list is a form of intellectual property, and intellectual property that is created by an employee (paid or volunteer) as part of a job is owned by the employer, not the employee. Ms. Weiss was privy to the information she collected only because she was PTSA president. Just as a scientist doesn't own an invention created in a company lab and a salesperson can't take a client list when he or she moves to a competitor, Ms. Weiss has no legal claim to the e-mail list.

Ms. Weiss may be listed as "owner" of the list on Yahoo, but that is only because Yahoo requires an individual to be responsible for its content.

Silver Spring Whose E-Mail List Is It?

Well, yes, you kind of have to agree with that.

It is not clear from the news story exactly why it matters who owns the list. If the moderator is deleting posts and kicking people out, that's one thing -- is she doing that? And I can understand the list administrator not wanting to operate under the control of school administrators, who have a tendency, you might say, to try to control the flow of information.


Anonymous Elsa L. Fridl said...

The news story stated that Yahoo lists Suzanne Weiss as the owner of the email list, and that Ms. Weiss is using this as an argument not to turn over the list to Cabin John's PTSA. What The Washington Post deleted from my editoral (due to space considerations) was that ANYONE can claim ownership of an email list; but just saying you own it does not make it so, according to the law.

January 10, 2008 2:58 PM  
Anonymous the red baron said...

In order to claim an e-mail list as protected intangible property, by law one would have to demonstrate that they have taken reasonable attempts to safeguard it. I don't think a Yahoo group list would ever qualify.

Further complicating the matter is that the woman was the President of the PTA and can say that, in that capacity, she decided to assign the list to herself as the person most committed to maintaining its original purpose.

January 10, 2008 3:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Important point left out of the article: Ms. Weiss no longer has any children at the school, is no longer a PTSA officer, and was asked to transition the list over to a new moderator who DOES have kids at the school. She said no. There are plenty of people on her list who signed up when she WAS affiliated, and have no idea they are getting something that isn't. Clearly she has a right to publish as she wishes, and her information provides value to subscribers. But how about some full disclosure to subscribers so they can consider staying or unsubscribing?

January 11, 2008 4:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: comment about about why it matters, and is Ms Weiss deleting posts and kicking people out?

Hahaha. There are no posts to delete because there is only one person she allows to post besides herself (Ms. Sartucci, who describes Weiss's efforts as "liberating" the list -- from whom?). Kabuki theatre is right.

January 16, 2008 11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ms. Sartucci does nothing but gripe and complain--her constant negativity and monopolization of every exchange caused me to quit the mccpta listserv several years ago. poison.

January 18, 2008 4:47 PM  

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