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October 16, 2009 12:49 PM Suing Bloggers: Not a Good Idea, Especially When They Turn Out To Be Your Students

By Jesse Singal

Inside Higher Ed:

Butler University has sued an undergraduate student for making libelous and defamatory statements about administrators on a blog he kept anonymously.
Details of the case became public last week when Bill Watts, an English professor at Butler, wrote a piece in the student newspaper and sent an e-mail to the university’s Faculty Senate in which he questioned “the practice of suing our own students for their utterances.” The e-mail provoked a written response from Bobby Fong, Butler president, who defended the lawsuit Tuesday at a Faculty Senate meeting, noting that “academic freedom does not provide protection for defamation and harassment.”
Jess Zimmerman, a junior at Butler, created “TrueBU Blog” in October 2008 to chronicle happenings he deemed of import at the institution. Though he managed the blog anonymously under the tongue-in-cheek moniker “Soodo Nym,” he has recently come forward publicly. In addition to posts by Zimmerman, the blog also featured “reports” from other anonymous faculty and student “correspondents.”
The blog did not attract much traffic until December 2008, when Zimmerman started chronicling what he viewed as the unfair dismissal of Andrea Gullickson, then chair of the Butler’s School of Music and Zimmerman’s stepmother. (Gullickson, who retained her faculty job, said that until recently, she did not realize the author was her stepson.) In multiple posts, Zimmerman cites various other anonymous sources and internal e-mails in presenting a case as to why he believes Peter Alexander, dean of Butler’s College of Fine Arts, and Jamie Comstock, Butler’s provost, acted “inappropriately and inexcusably” in their handling of Gullickson’s departure. During that month, Zimmerman said, the blog received more than 2,000 hits.

So what sort of inflammatory language led to the lawsuit?

Among the specific statements written by Zimmerman that the university deems libelous include the following description: “Peter Alexander, Dean of the [College of Fine Arts] is power-hungry and afraid of his own shadow. … He drives away talented administrators. He frustrates students within the departments. He hurts the ability of the school to recruit talented students and faculty members. He announces to the campus that the Butler Way, the deals for which the school and everyone at it stands, mean nothing.”
The university also takes umbrage at Zimmerman’s description of a meeting Alexander had with the School of Music, regarding the departure of Gullickson, a well-liked chair who received favorable reviews from her peers. Zimmerman writes that Alexander “lied” to faculty and left the meeting “embarrassed” for having done so. The university also challenges Zimmerman’s claim that Alexander and Comstock were “engaged in a conspiracy to misrepresent the circumstances of the departure” of Gullickson as chair.

This warrants a lawsuit? Don’t millions of bloggers say far more controversial things on a daily basis? Even if Zimmerman’s work met the legal threshold required for action on the part of the university, this is a very foolhardy path to take. In battles like this, even if you win, you lose, because in a fight between a giant university and a lone blogger, it’s impossible for the former to come out looking like the good guy.

(The case gets yet more convoluted, so Inside Higher Ed’s full account is worth a read.)

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.