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Butler case raises freedom of speech questions

Butler University blog controversy raises concern about online libel

Published: Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Updated: Wednesday, December 9, 2009 07:12


James Choca / Tufts Daily

A recent controversy surrounding a blog at Butler University has shed new light on free speech at college campuses.

Criticizing the actions of their college or university's administration has been a common practice among students across the United States for decades. But for Jess Zimmerman, a junior at Butler University in Indianapolis, doing so landed him not only in hot water with his school's administration, but with a lawsuit as well.

In October of last year, Zimmerman began writing the "TrueBU" blog, which covered happenings Zimmerman deemed important at the university. Zimmerman wrote anonymously under the name "Soodo Nym." The blog attracted the university's attention after Zimmerman started to comment on what he believed to be the unfair dismissal of the Butler School of Music chair, Andrea Gullickson, who is also Zimmerman's stepmother. Gullickson said that at the time, she was not aware that her stepson was behind the blog.

On the TrueBU blog, Zimmerman strongly criticized the dean of Butler's Jordan College of Fine Arts, Peter Alexander, and Butler Provost Jamie Comstock.

In what the Federal Anti−Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation Project (Anti−SLAPP) called a "Textbook Cyber SLAPP," Butler filed a libel and defamation suit against Soodo Nym to try to uncover the author. The project defines SLAPP suits as "meritless lawsuits brought against a person for urging a government result or speaking out on an issue of public interest."

Zimmerman has since revealed himself as the author of the blog, and Butler University has dropped the lawsuit against Zimmerman but is pursuing disciplinary action against him, which is still ongoing.

Zimmerman's saga raises questions of how free speech can exist on college campuses, and he said he has been following the Tufts Board of Trustees' recent approval of its free speech policy.

As to whether he believes the issue of free speech is threatened on college campuses in general, Zimmerman said that he thinks the problem has probably spread nationwide.

"I hope it's specific to Butler, but I see what's happened at Tufts and I've seen it at a couple of other places, and I think universities and institutions of higher education need to be places in this country where free speech is absolutely held in the highest regard and is respected and understood as not only a law, but an absolute necessity," Zimmerman told the Daily.

Dean of Student Affairs Bruce Reitman said he believes the Butler case and the recent Tufts free speech policy are inherently different.

"The Butler case is what the student can say about the administration," he said. "The policy that the Board [of Trustees] just adopted is not about what students can say about any particular entity, administration, or faculty, or other student groups or any individual student. That's not what this addresses, so the Butler case is a very specific example in a larger conversation. So the debate at our board and the policy they just came out with is much, much broader, and I don't think you can so easily talk about the two at the same place."

Reitman believes the Butler case is more related to slander and libel laws than free speech issues in general, though he said that the trustee policy does include a statement regarding slander and defamation.

The policy states, "The law, for example, provides that freedom of expression does not include the right to slander the reputation of another, to engage in specified forms of harassment, to threaten or obstruct a speaker who advances unwelcome ideas, or to incite another person to violence."

"You don't need a freedom of expression policy of any sort to address that question," Reitman said. "There are all sorts of laws about defamation, slander and libel.

"The Butler case is an example of it, at least, according to the Butler administration," he added.

Reitman also pointed out that for disciplinary action to be brought against a member of the community at Tufts in the case of slander or defamation, another member of the community who feels that he or she has been harmed must raise a complaint. Zimmerman was not aware of a requirement at Butler that an individual must raise a complaint with the university in order for it to pursue disciplinary action.

"I know our judicial process is different from many schools'," Zimmerman said.

"The president of Butler, [Bobby Fong], has released three memos to the full faculty discussing what I allegedly did and proclaiming me guilty, so what Butler is doing is having verdict come before the trial," Zimmerman said. "I'd prefer to have the trial before the verdict; unfortunately I'm guilty and have a show to go through."

Tufts Judicial Advocates, a student organization that aids students with the on−campus judicial process, has not seen any recent cases where alleged censorship is being practiced.

"We haven't had any cases of it, and it's not been brought to our attention," senior Eddie Mishan, a member of Tufts Judicial Advocates, said.

One Tufts organization that is no stranger to controversy regarding free speech is Tufts' journal of conservative thought, The Primary Source. Junior C.J. Saraceno, The Primary Source's assistant Web editor, believes The Primary Source and Tufts students in general do not have much to fear regarding censorship by the university.

"I would say that I believe Tufts is a good institution," Saraceno said. "I think all our criticisms from the Primary Source are warranted, and it's having a diversity of campus media that lets students hear perspectives from all sides.

"I feel like a lot of kids on the Source think the Daily is kind of like a PR novelty most of the time for the university in pushing policy," he added. "I feel that because [The Primary Source] is an asset to the university and to the university's diversity, I don't expect Tufts to react to offensive speech with censorship … It did charge [The Primary Source] with harassment, but it didn't allow Tufts to be censored by student organizations. It believes in freedom of speech. [Tufts President] Larry Bacow said it himself."

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