- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 4, 2001

Once upon a time, people wrote love letters in the sand. (I can hear that wonderful Pat Boone record across the years). But that was then. This is now.

Today we profess our love (among other things) via e-mail. Often at the office, or using our office PC to send an e-mail through our personal home account. It's faster. Also not real bright.

Where love letters are concerned, sand is better. And it's a safer medium for telling somebody you love them, want them, need them, hate them. Or for just sending a dumb message.

Sand is for something that needs to be said, but not preserved for future generations, or the courts. Especially if you work for the federal government.

In short, when the message is emotional, remember this: Sand good. E-mail bad. Here's why:

E-mails are forever. As in F-O-R-E-V-E-R. The courts (and jails) are often the next stop for people who thought they had erased or deleted data.

Washington lawyer Debra Roth (of Shaw, Bransford, Veilleux and Roth) says part of the problem is that people are "becoming more comfortable with e-mail … people will say things in an e-mail that they would never, ever put in a memo," she says. "It's so easy to hit the 'send' button."

Once written and sent, the e-mail is forever, she said. Which can be good and bad.

Miss Roth once had a male client who was being charged with serious sexual harassment. A subordinate charged that he forced her to have sex in return for pay raises and promotions.

His defense: She chased him, she wanted him and finally wore him down.

She wanted it, right? How lame is that? Death (or at least demotion) is too good for the pig. Who does he think he is, a congressman or a president? What nerve. What a jerk. Except … for what actually happened.

What happened is that he got into her personal e-mail account — it can be done and it can be done legally — and an expert retrieved a long, detailed letter from her to him. It was dated and it showed that she proposed a sexual relationship. In other words, she started it. He didn't promise or threaten anything. Immoral, maybe. Illegal, nope.

"He was telling the truth," Miss Roth said. The e-mail "saved his job."

E-mails don't go away. The FBI and agency inspectors general have the time, equipment and talent to track down almost any e-mail from any source, including those you may have sent from work but routed through your personal e-mail account.

A Washington lawyer who asked not to be identified said he represented a client who sent e-mail photos of himself, sans clothes, to friends around the country. And his friends sent him birthday-suit shots as well. A co-worker spotted the action. Reported it. And the man's government career was effectively ended.

To add insult to injury, the attorney said, "He was putting his head on the body of a much younger, muscular man. … I don't know who he was fooling." Indeed.

When alerted that his pen pal program was under investigation, he deleted all of his e-mails. But the IG staff recovered them.

All federal agencies have e-mail policies. They range from the very complex to the use-horse-sense variety.

Unfortunately, few people in or out of government are horse whisperers. So they don't speak horse. And don't have horse sense. Especially those who are very comfortable with e-mails.

The Department of Commerce, for example, says workers are allowed to use e-mail for personal matters on official time. Reasons would include, but aren't limited to, checking a day care provider, touching base with a spouse or somebody in the car pool, or reading a useful and fascinating article heck, like this one.

The key is that the use must be moderate, and occasional. It must incur only "minimal expense to the government … not interfere with official business … [and] make clear the e-mail is personal and not in any way identified as an official" communication.

So what about the First Amendment? The right of free speech. Good question. What about it?

The e-mail jury is still out on that one.

People also have the right to be stupid. But they can suffer for it.

Increasingly, federal workers, especially those in the law-enforcement field, are using e-mails to attack their supervisors or agencies when they are punished or reprimanded.

They may attack an individual or a policy.

It's like the old saying: Freedom of speech doesn't include shouting fire (when there isn't one) in a crowded theater.

Going public (via e-mail) in a dispute with the agency or supervisor violates the even older saying: Never embarrass or surprise the boss. Especially via a mass e-mail mailing.

The bottom line: You can contact old friends and use e-mail for personal matters if you use horse sense. You can buy a ticket, or read a newspaper or newsletter if it doesn't take long. And if it doesn't cost or embarrass the government.

You can't, of course, use e-mail (or other government equipment like the telephone) for illegal, objectionable or offensive purposes. Again, use horse sense.

Anybody got a horse?

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