Privacy as Misdirection

The story of Ashley Paine, the 24-year-old high school teacher in Georgia who was fired in August 2009 for drinking a Guinness on a vacation in Dublin, is making the rounds again. It is typically told as a story of the risks of Facebook and the Internet’s destruction of privacy, but this framing misses the larger and more dangerous issues in the Paine story.

The pictures were exactly what you’d expect from a European summer vacation: Cafes in Italy and Spain, the Guinness brewery in Ireland. So 24-year-old Ashley Payne, a public high school English teacher in Georgia, was not prepared for what happened when her principal asked to see her in August 2009.

“He just asked me, ‘Do you have a Facebook page?'” Payne said. “And you know, I’m confused as to why I am being asked this, but I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘Do you have any pictures of yourself up there with alcohol?'”

In fact, the picture that concerned the principal – showing Payne holding a glass of wine and a mug of beer – was on her Facebook page. There was also a reference to a local trivia contest with a profanity in its title.

Payne was told a parent of one of her students called to complain. And then, Payne says, she was given a choice: resign or be suspended.

“He told me that I needed to make a decision before I left, or he was going to go ahead and suspend me,” she said.

She resigned. Attorney Richard Storrs is fighting to get Payne’s job back.

“It would be like I went to a restaurant and I saw my daughter’s teacher sitting there with her husband having a glass of some kind of liquid,” Storr said. “You know, is that frowned upon by the school board? Is that illegal? Is that improper? Of course not. It’s the same situation in this case.”

But here’s the really troubling part: Payne had used the privacy settings on Facebook. She thought that only her closest friends could see her vacation photos or her use of the “B” word.

“I wouldn’t use it in a classroom, no,” she said. “But Facebook is not the classroom. And it’s not open to the students of my classroom. They are not supposed to see it. I have privacy in place so they don’t see it.”


What Ashley Payne or anyone of us who uses the Internet has to realize is this: Today our private lives are no longer so private.

In fact, the Facebook issue is, to me, largely irrelevant. Storrs is correct: it is exactly like witnessing a 24-year-old adult drinking a glass of beer or wine in a restaurant. The link to Facebook and privacy issues accomplishes three purposes: (1) fitting into the dominant framework that the openness of communication on the Internet is something to be feared, (2) directing attention away from the gender-based and economic issues that made it so easy for the school board to fire an adult for drinking a glass of beer on her own time, and (3) infantilizing all of us by prohibiting adults from engaging in behavior seen as inappropriate for children.

It is hard to imagine that a 24-year-old male teacher in Georgia would have been fired for the “offense” of drinking a beer in Dublin. A male high school teachers would be less likely to be viewed as a role model for high school teens (that’s what high school football is for). As an adult woman, Ms. Paine must be forced into a patriarchal model of young femininity.

The problem with the privacy framing is this: there is no reason that Ms. Paine’s consumption of Ireland’s favorite beverage should be considered private or shameful. It is only because the principal and school board chose to use it as a reason to fire her that privacy became an issue. Of course, employers in Georgia are free to fire employees for no cause; such is the freedom our system provides us. Ms. Paine, of course, is equally free to choose between employment and behaving like an adult.

I may be wrong about the gender issue; perhaps a male teacher would have been fired for the same cause. If so, that only strengthens the case for my third claim. Just as some calls for censorship of adult materials would restrict access by everyone to reading books and viewing films that would not cause discomfort to parents of minor children, so the privacy framing of an adult’s firing for drinking a beer posits that adult’s activity as shameful, as something to be hidden. Privacy framing in this way serves to diminish the scope of the public sphere by expanding the sphere of the shameful.

(Cross-posted from Wings and Ravioli.)


About James G. Milles

Professor of Law, SUNY Buffalo Law School
This entry was posted in Labor. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Privacy as Misdirection

  1. Pingback: Privacy as Misdirection | Buffalo Wings and Toasted Ravioli

  2. Martha McCluskey says:

    Your critique of “privacy” in this case raises the question of the extent to which neoliberalism has reconstructed what should be public wrongs as rights to be “left alone” I’m thinking of arguments that the seeming libertarian privacy approach to striking down the sodomy law in Lawrence v Texas is troubling, distinguishing the public claim to equal marriage for instance from the right to be left alone in ones’ home.
    Why isn’t this teacher’s case being framed first and foremost as an egregious example of the lack of public citizenship rights for workers? That the law allows some states to fire teachers for a host of arbitrary or bad reasons says something about the value the state is putting on these “role models” and the lessons of subordination their position teaches. Considered against the current backdrop of virulent attacks on tenure for schoolteachers and law professors alike, we have even more reason to suspect the issue is not about privacy but about the reconstruction and enforcement of a public status hierarchy and to devalue public education and public workers.
    You mention the supposed impropriety here seems gendered, but it also may be about class, in a complex way — hard to imagine a Wall Street lawyer, financial industry executive, or member of Congress being criticized for displaying such a photo (to the contrary, it would affirm their relatively clean fun and affinity with the common folk). Thinking back to the prior blog entry on capitalism and emotions, the “role model” argument seems to be consistent with the idea that women professionals must give service to their employers not just in their actions but in their very identity — including their performance of leisure as well as their emotions. Does the Disney Institute business training direct employers to constrain employees’ non-work activities in its efforts to sell “extreme service” ?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s