Political Fax-Finding Missions

May 14, 1994

Technology is invariably a mixed blessing, especially along the new information highway.

The telephone exposed us to the unwelcome aural intrusions of salesmen and solicitors; the automatic dialer and recorded message cranked up the insult level several more notches.

Now comes the growing popularity of the fax machine, which miraculously allows the printed word to quickly travel over those same lines; it avoids the nuisance of instant interruption but pushes the entire message in the face of the recipient, who's denied even the scant consolation of slamming down the receiver.

That political candidates have seized this popular technology to reach potential voters is no surprise. Where there's a fax, there's usually a group of people who skim through the incoming pages.

So the Harford County school system's new directive to destroy all incoming campaign material is an expected -- and proper -- response to a potentially disruptive political tactic. There's no reason any school should be used as a campaign podium (during work) and that partisan politics should be forced on a captive audience of school staff.

The move was prompted by a Republican candidate for Harford executive who sent, via fax machines located in county schools, a letter to the editor printed by The Sun for Harford County in which he criticized the education budget of incumbent Eileen M. Rehrmann. The sender carefully avoided any cover sheet or message explaining the campaign motive for his electronic missive.

Clearly, the Harford school system and its employees wish to get more money from the county executive's budget, so that message was of potential interest to them. And we certainly support the free flow of political information and views; that's why this newspaper prints reader letters.

But public institutions (and private businesses) need to keep their workplaces free from campaigning, as much as possible. Schools and government offices are particularly sensitive about overt partisan politicking, or should be. One problem is that the protocol for handling unsolicited faxes is often unclear; employees know how to deal with unwanted phone calls and worthless mail, but not with faxes. So new rules are required.

This won't be the last campaign stunt of '94. Other candidates will find new ways to push the envelope of communications. But we hope this incident has been instructive, and that other pols have learned they shouldn't tamper with the fax.

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