Friday, October 16, 2009

Dangerous Precedents


The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that "Butler University has sued an undergraduate student for making libelous and defamatory statements about administrators on a blog he kept anonymously." [full story] Essentially, Jess Zimmerman, a student, didn't agree with an administrative decision that removed the chair of the Butler’s School of Music. In full disclosure, the chair of the music department also happened to be the student's stepmother. The lawsuit is bizarre, to the say least, since the student's blog were more critical than malicious. He largely questioned certain administrators actions and called into question the handling of the process. Shortly thereafter, Butler University filed a libel and defamation suit against the student.

So as to dissociate the institutional response from the faculty response, several faculty members have spoken up about this case. An English professor wrote an editorial to the student newspaper questioning “the practice of suing our own students for their utterance." Needless to say, the idea of academic freedom is at the center of this debate.

The decision of this case is important for any number of philosophy club blogs, like this one. Philosophy adopts a critical model of inquiry that posits truth as the ultimate pursuit. Attacks are leveled at arguments, not people. Weak arguments are discarded for stronger arguments. Philosophers train their students within this method, for the pursuit of truth. Moreover, philosophers don't sue their pupils when they engage in ad hominem attacks, they point out their error and correct the method.

Topics of philosophical discussion can range from ethical vampires to vegetarianism. Often, philosophical discussions center on politics and power. Nietzsche, for example, is good discussion fodder for critiques of power. At times, philosophical discussion can aim at institutions - whether they be governmental, financial, or educational. A good philosopher encourages discussion and sometimes provokes pupils to engage and speak up about any number of topics. Success can be measured by the number of gadflys produced when the class or session is concluded.

The most engaged gadflys will continue the conversation outside of the classroom, even commenting and posting on a philosophical blog (wink). Jess Zimmerman, a gadfly, began posting and commenting on the leadership and power of the educational institution in which he was engaged. Unfortunately, those in power are the least accepting of critique. This gadfly was squashed.

This case appears to be isolated, but could easily apply to any number of philosophical blogs around the country connected to a university. The precedent at stake is a narrowing of philosophical discourse by punishing any criticism of structural power in the educational enterprise. A topic that may very well occur at any university among philosophy students.

As the article states, Zimmerman's first post to the blog read, “This is not a forum for attack. It is a forum for truth." A statement equally applicable to any number of philosophical blogs, radio stations, and classrooms.

~guybrarian

9 comments:

Steve Gimbel said...

How can academics have such thin skins? Did these people not go through grad school?

Hanno said...

I'm not sure how this suit even gets off the ground. If it does, then I guarantee many facualty members and students at every institution commits slander, the verbal version of libel, every year.

“X 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 ideals for which the school and everyone at it stands, mean nothing.”

This is an example of the supposed libel!

Two professors of a foreign language, one that rhymes with 'Stench' at a school that will remain anonymous, but whose initials are GC, in particular come to mind.

And get the doctors lined up, the commit slander against hospital admins every day.

But for this to truly be libel, the authors must know that these claims are false. I have no doubt the student in question thinks these things are true.

Josh said...

Gimbel -

Certainly not a graduate program in philosophy.

Oddly enough, an article in the New York Times earlier this month reported that women make up less than a fifth of philosophy departments in Britain and little more than that in the United States.

Helen Beebee, director of the British Philosophical Association, says one reason may be that women are turned off by a culture of aggressive argument particular to philosophy, which grows increasingly more pronounced at the postgraduate level. “I can remember being a Ph.D. student and giving seminar papers and just being absolutely terrified that I was going to wind up intellectually beaten to a pulp by the audience,” she says. “I can easily imagine someone thinking, ‘This is just ridiculous. Why would I want to pursue a career where I open myself up to having my work publicly trashed on a regular basis?’ ”

Josh said...

You can access the actual letter from the president of Butler to faculty senate in the article wherein he states:

In this community, we can be vociferous on the issues, but we must also respect those with opposing views. Academic freedom does not provide protection for defamation and harassment.

Indeed, the free exchange of ideas demands that faculty, students, and staff be protected from defamation and harassments because these are the means by which bullies intimidate others into silence."

So a student with a blog is bullying a legally protected educational entity that is fully-funded and holds the right to suspend said student from its campus?

You bring a lawsuit against a student for questioning authority, silencing the blog, and then call them a bully? Huh.

ce said...

Why would I want to pursue a career where I open myself up to having my work publicly trashed on a regular basis?

Because it's fun?

Steve Gimbel said...

Two professors of a foreign language, one that rhymes with 'Stench' at a school that will remain anonymous, but whose initials are GC, in particular come to mind.

I've taken to referring to them as Statler and Waldorf.

You bring a lawsuit against a student for questioning authority, silencing the blog, and then call them a bully? Huh.

Bingo.

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