He wrote things like “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. He announces to the campus that the Butler Way, the ideals for which the school and everyone at it stands, mean nothing.”
The university has deemed statements like this to be libelous and in January filed a libel and defamation lawsuit against “Soodo Nym,” the pseudonym used by Zimmerman on the anonymous blog.
While the lawsuit has been dropped, possibly because of public backlash to the idea of a university suing one of its own students, campus disciplinary proceedings continue.
As students, we should be outraged. While it is repetitive to reiterate the merits and even the necessity of free speech, especially in a supposedly open and intellectually fostering environment such as a college campus, students should be supported by their university in all forms of “inquiry” and “interactive dialogue” – even the kind that is critical of the university administration.
Students should be able to speak out against their university without fear of legal action or the help of the ACLU, which agreed to take Zimmerman’s case to court.
Butler has become the first university in the United States to file a lawsuit against online speech. While the legal case has now been dropped, it nevertheless sets an alarming precedent – one that we, as students, have a duty to protest.
Butler’s president, Bobby Fong, has defended the lawsuit, stating that “academic freedom does not provide protection for defamation and harassment.”
But Zimmerman’s blog, while critical and sometimes harsh, certainly did not merit a lawsuit and merely expressed an opinion, as pointed out in a letter by Butler English professor Bill Watts, who said, “I am no expert on communications law, but it is very difficult for me to see how these or any other statements included in the suit meet a legal definition of either defamation or libel.”
Butler University’s mission statement, as found on its Web site, reads as follows:
“Butler’s mission is to provide the highest quality of liberal and professional education and to integrate the liberal arts with professional education, by creating and fostering a stimulating intellectual community built upon interactive dialogue and inquiry among students, faculty and staff.”
For our technology-based generation, “inquiry” and “interactive dialogue” have taken on new forms, such as blogs, but remain the essential foundation of a liberal education and rightfully belong in a university’s mission statement.
While Butler University has given lip service to the ideas, in practice they are attempting to silence those students at their own institution who practice “inquiry” and “dialogue” under the charges of libel, defamation and harassment.
Butler is wrong to use its scarce resources to attempt to intimidate one of its own students into silence. Zimmerman did not libel but rather expressed critical opinions. His blog was a valuable outlet for dissent, conversation and, most importantly, “interactive dialogue and inquiry among students, faculty and staff.”
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