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Editorial | Guarding a reputation, but sacrificing principles

Published: Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Updated: Wednesday, December 9, 2009 07:12

Earlier this year, Jess Zimmerman, a junior at Butler University in Indiana and the author of the anonymous blog "TruBU," was sued by his school for supposedly writing libelous statements about Peter Alexander, dean of Butler's Jordan College of Fine Arts. The university used this lawsuit as a thinly veiled and unfair means to compromise the anonymity of the blogger and bring him to "justice."

Though Zimmerman did harshly criticize a member of the university administration, his statements against Alexander were in no way defamatory or slanderous and clearly did not merit a lawsuit.  He stated that Peter Alexander "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." Zimmerman's criticism of Alexander was in direct response to what Zimmerman felt had been an unwarranted staff cut that the dean made. Though Zimmerman's opinion of Alexander was quite scathing, his words were not libel.

The school, unappreciative of the feelings posted on the blog, set out to take down whoever had written them in order to protect its image. This is completely unfair to Zimmerman; the university has no business infringing on his right to anonymously publish an opinion, especially because the blog was independent from the school. As an academic institution that is supposed to support and cultivate free thought and discussion, Butler should have acknowledged the criticism as another form of student expression and simply moved on.

But even more deplorable than the school's unnecessary censorship of a student's writing is how the university used the lawsuit for the sole purpose of finding out the blogger's identity. The university clearly had little intention of going through with the suit; immediately after having the court force Zimmerman to reveal his identity, the administration dropped the case in order to pursue its own course of judiciary action against him.

The Federal Anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (Anti-SLAPP) Project defines this kind of suit as a "CyberSLAPP," meaning that its express purpose is, as the Anti-SLAPP Project states, "to have the court force the speaker to reveal his or her identity. Once an entity learns the identity of an anonymous speaker, it can drop the meritless lawsuit and proceed with other methods of harassment or retaliation." The university wrongly manipulated the U.S. legal system for its own personal benefit. Our laws should not be used as a means of blackmail; their purpose is to keep law and order. Suing Zimmerman was a way for the university to strong-arm him into giving up his identity and submitting himself to university punishment — a wrongful and overly suppressive step in and of itself.

Not only did Butler overstep in restraining the free speech of one of its students; it abused the judicial system and tarnished its own reputation in the process. Educational institutions should concern themselves with protecting and promoting students' right to free speech and only censor students when their speech is patently slanderous or libelous.

 

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