Friday, October 16, 2009
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.