Thursday, October 22, 2009

Internal Bleeding

I’ve spent a good deal of time on this blog discussing the parts of the president’s memos that are simply untrue. Today, I’m going to focus on a part of his memos that I think is probably, but unfortunately, accurate.

The more I think about it, the more the president’s promise of on-campus disciplinary action scares me.

After all, in a real court there is the assurance of impartiality. The president, however, has eliminated any possibility of there being a fair proceeding in on-campus disciplinary actions. In the memos he circulated to the full faculty of the University (linked on the right), he has already convicted me.

The president writes that “Soodo Nym’s blogs and e-mail crossed the line from robust criticism of policy to character assassination and intimidation,” and the blog, “contained falsehoods that harmed the professional reputations of individuals.” These are but two examples of the rhetoric the president uses that convince me that I will not be treated fairly. While I categorically disagree with the president’s assertions, and so do the many people who have read the documents and shared their comments on blogs and news stories around the country, the fact remains that the president of the university is willing to publicly convict me before internal disciplinary processes are even initiated.

I’ll let that sink in for a minute.

What does that mean? It means that the person in charge of the disciplinary process has told everyone else who will be involved in the disciplinary process that I’m guilty. Now, I understand that the U.S. constitution offers me no protection at Butler because it is a private institution, but as stewards of an institution of higher education in the United States, the administration at Butler should embrace at least a semblance of our country’s most basic and inalienable rights. Instead, by denying me any hint of my due-process rights, the president has decided that he can structure things better than can the country’s founding fathers.

Isn’t that a scary thought? It sure is to me. The lawsuit was, and still is (remember, despite the president’s promise, it has yet to be dismissed-check out the counter on the right) precedent setting: According to The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (The FIRE) it is the first time a university has ever sued over online speech. In some ways, though, the precedent that the administration is trying to set at Butler by announcing my guilt before holding the trial is far more dangerous. It seems that soon it will be an old-fashioned thought that students at Butler can expect to be treated fairly and even with a dab of respect. When important civil rights begin to erode, we all have much to fear; at Butler and elsewhere.

The man in charge has issued an edict: The trial, when it comes, is now for show. So I’m scared, and I believe that that’s exactly what the administration wants me to feel. Estella Lauter posted a great comment on the Inside Higher Ed article (linked on the right) where she quotes Audre Lorde. Lorde wrote, “For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.” Please, don’t let the silence choke you: Tell the president and the board of trustees what you think of this dangerous and unfortunate situation. Speak out and speak up to save our rights.


  1. lol he has not done anything yet, relax until you see what happens..

  2. I disagree strongly with the first poster–whatever punishment Fong deems fit is not nearly as scary as the fact that he is so insistent on punishment in the first place, after the student body and faculty had made very clear that Fong is the only one who deserves punishment here. We shouldn't let the administration get away with this, for our reputation's sake as well as Jess's.

    Proudly posting anonymously.

  3. Well, he hasn't done anything except fire two of the most competent people at the university, file a lawsuit against a student and repeatedly lie about all of it, that is.

    Other than that, no, he hasn't done anything. So we may's well just wait to see where he's going with this.

  4. I agree with the above. you've admitted to what you've done wrong, so a judge's impartiality is moot. Now it's just about the punishment fitting the crime.
    Jess, many people, including myself and other alums, are putting as much pressure on the university as we can to let them know we do not approve.
    Today Dr. Fong replied to my email to him with this memos attached. I replied immediately to let him know that his reply was unacceptable to me.
    Let me be clear. We both agree that sending the emails was the biggest mistake. they were misinterpreted, and admin is pissed about what they construed them to say. weather or not this is actually what was going on is irrelevant. You lied when asked about them. also a mistake. They did something very very bad and filed a lawsuit against you. Everyone here will have differing opinions about what is an acceptable punishment for you, but we are all united in our belief that the lawsuit was wrong. not that you were right, but that the lawsuit was wrong.
    What I mean is, that you can't complain about how the decide to punish you, if it's fitting. (expulsion from the university is not a fitting punishment - giving you my old roommate to make sure you never get to sleep again (like happened to me) might be fair. community service. writing on the blackboard, whatever.) This amazing show of support that you are and are not aware of happening behind the scenes is not that we all want you to walk away from this claiming any sort of victory. Some of us want that. Others will not.
    In short, prepare yourself for the internal review process. I have a feeling the suit WILL be dropped early next week. you'll get something, and you'll have to deal with it (pray it's not the roommate!) and you'll have to move on. Don't expect 60 alums to write the board if you get mad because they suspend you a semester or give you a bad parking spot.

  5. Suspended for a semester? Give me a break! Butler let a large group of business majors who had cheated on an exam in their senior year graduate. I don't know of one student plagiarist who has been suspended. Let's do a review of Butlerian Punishments before saying that we'll all accept whatever Bobby Fong dishes out.

  6. It's not clear to me that Jess deserves any punishment at all, and certainly not suspension for a semester. The Christmas Day message may have been a miscalculation, but it is hard for me to see it as a violation of any kind of policy or rule. It certainly does not constitute harassment.

    Lying is perhaps a punishable violation. But if Jess is to be punished for lying, then I think that others who have lied in this sorry affair should also be punished.

    And if there is to be punishment, I think it should be fulfilled by "time served." Can you imagine the anxiety of living with all of this for the past ten months? Any punishable violation that Jess committed happened more than nine months ago, and he has had to sit and wonder what is going to happen to him all of this time.

    What he has already gone through far outweighs any possible wrong he has done.

  7. Suspend Bobby Fong
    Suspend Bobby Fong
    Suspend Bobby Fong

  8. I see the T-shirt:

    SUSPEND on the front
    BOBBY FONG on the back
    assorted colors

  9. The administrations decides what they want to do to someone, and finds a way to accomplish it. Served in the armed services to guarantee you rights to free speech. Butler Univeristy has tired to control this story form the start. They mention your e-mail, what about the presidents memo's. To bully a student is totally unacceptable. Pressure needs to put on the Board of Trustees to something about him.

  10. Having said that I do not think Jess should be punished further, let me also say that, for both personal and institutional reasons, I think there needs to be a grand bargain here. If I had the power to impose a resolution, it might look like this:

    1. Jess issues some kind of apology, possibly for disseminating incivil speech on campus.
    2. The University apologizes to Jess for departing from its normal disciplinary process in dealing with him, and for threatening to sue him.
    3. The University pays Jess's legal fees.
    4. The University agrees to form a committee charged with developing the strongest policies in the nation for protecting free speech and guaranteeing the privacy of email. The express purpose of this committee would be to correct for past mistakes and to address the public perception that Butler suppresses free speech on campus. The committee is made up of students, faculty and staff members. Jess Zimmerman is offered a seat on this committee, as is Christina Lear, who has written bravely and eloquently about preserving free speech on campus.

    But, as some readers may have noticed, I am not in charge here.

  11. I would urge you and your lawyers to study Butler's Student Handbook and the policies regarding discipline very, very closely. While you don't have the same Constitutional protections for you due process rights that students at a State school would have, the university is still legally required to follow its own stated policies and practices.

    Side note: I'm working on an MA in student affairs right now, so I do know a very small amount about this sort of thing, and I'm following your case (even though I have no connection with Butler other than being from Indianapolis).

  12. I like Bill Watt's recommendation for resolution.

    The University appears to have initiated this by their apparent mischaracterization/oversensitivity to honest candid criticism. The president (not Jess) has all the power. Therefore, it is the president's responsibility to initiate action that brings this to a positive resolution.
    The longer this goes unresolved, the more likely it is that it will escalate as posturing and spinning leads to misrepresentation and misunderstanding.

    If the president insists that Jess must be subjected to some sort of disciplinary hearing when it is not clear that there is any basis for this action,(Especially nothing in the blog to warrant this action) why would Jess subject himself to such when he and so many others feel he is the one that has been bullied and abused?

    How about everyone simply stepping back and admitting that there have been errors and misunderstandings have occurred, that everyone is committed to the same goals, and for the good of Butler, resolution should happen? All that is necessary is for the leadership of the university to swallow their pride and make it happen.

  13. "All that is necessary is for the leadership of the university to swallow their pride and make it happen."

    That's the entire problem. Had they swallowed their pride in the beginning there would have been no lawsuit. WE need to make it happen.

  14. The tags of "First Amendment" and "Free Speech" are disingenuous to me. Repeated references to fairness and due process as well. As others have pointed out, the blog writer is not subject to the same rights here, since this is a private matter, and the student has subjected himself to the university's flawed judicial system by agreement.

    I'm inclined to accept that Butler's heavy-handed (ham-fisted?) handling of this sordid situation (of which I only became aware today) was ill-advised and unnecessary, as has been stated much better by distinguished faculty like Bill Watts. However, I'm still troubled by the ongoing victimhood and continued flailing, wailing, and gnashing of teeth by the self-appointed victim and his anonymous supporters here. Let's not forget what brought him to this point: "incivil speech," and statements that the university (rightly or wrongly) felt had crossed the line into anonymous character assassination and slander or libel.

    I think many people miss (or willfully ignore) the first recommendation Prof. Watts makes: that Mr. Zimmermann apologize. Based on the several blog posts I have read today, I don't hold out much hope for that, so long as Mr. Zimmermann continues to ride his cross as far as it will carry him.

    It seems to me Mr. Zimmermann got what he was after: attention. Unfortunately it was more attention than he had bargained for, and Butler seriously overplayed its hand. It's time for both sides to back down from their reactionary stances and get things back in control. I think Prof. Watts' suggestion gives a good starting point for how both sides can save face and move on from here.

    That said, I think there are still some flaws in the recommendations. For example, "private e-mail" is unlikely so long as Butler provides the network, and carries the liability of it. No workplace I know of affords its employees (or students) truly private e-mail. You want private e-mail, go off-network.

    I also think it's unlikely that Butler will apologize for going outside the "normal disciplinary process," since I'd bet they expressly reserve that right in the Student Handbook. To back down from that right would set a bad precedent and could hamstring the university in future (and potentially more serious) cases. And I bet the only way he'll get his legal fees would be through civil litigation.