Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Chorus, Part One

The number of editorials and columns appearing in college and university newspapers around the country supporting the rights of students to speak their minds, even if when doing so displeases administrators, continues to grow. I’m gratified that all of those who have written agree with what I’ve said from the outset: the issue Butler has made of my writing has implications that extend far beyond the Butler campus and far beyond what they are doing to me as an individual, as unsettling as the latter might be.

Because the list of such pieces, on the right, has gotten so large, to help people get a full sense of what is being said, I’m going to print excerpts from some of them as my main posts today and tomorrow. I hope you’ll feel as I do: the outcry is both large and growing – and the Butler administration is being increasingly isolated as acting in an extreme manner, out of the norm for colleges and universities around the country. The position that Butler has staked out for itself is certainly a unique one, and I don’t understand why its administrators want to continue in this fashion.

Here, then, is a sampling of opinions from around the country:

From The Daily Iowan at the University of Iowa (11/13/09): In an editorial entitled “Administrators’ stifling of student free speech rights troubling,” the paper wrote, part:

A blatantly censorial lawsuit filed against a Butler University junior is a threat to students’ freedom of speech everywhere.

As students-journalists who relish freedom of speech, we have an obligation to stand up for Zimmerman and push back against unconstitutional restrictions on college students.

Since 1964’s New York Times v. Sullivan Supreme Court case, libel charges from public officials require journalists’ knowledge that the information they reported was false and that the reporter had a “reckless disregard” for the truth. Zimmerman’s claims were simply statements of his opinion and, while damning, were completely legal.

Whether they like it, public administrators are subject to intense — and sometimes unsavory — scrutiny. That was certainly true in the Butler University case. But Zimmerman’s critiques did not cross the line from strident evisceration to libelous material. And attempting to limit his speech because of dissenting comments is unconstitutional.

The efforts of the Butler administration set a frightening precedent for college students. In an errant, unconstitutional effort to uphold their own reputations, the administrators concomitantly stymied Zimmerman’s First Amendment rights.

But it’s cases such as these which show just how fragile students’ freedom of expression rights can be — and underscore the need to tirelessly defend them.

The editorial in the Daily Iowan was run with the following cartoon:

From the News-Letter at Johns Hopkins University (11/12/09): The newspaper’s editor-in-chief called Butler’s actions into question in an opinion piece entitled “What’s in a Pseudonym?”:

The counts of "libel" and "defamation" that Butler University cites in its suit against "John Doe" are nothing more than harmless student opinion. Higher education, built for the expansion of young people's mind and boundaries, was meant for young adults to question and consider counts of authority.

Mark Twain, a.k.a. Samuel Clemens, made his satires of society under his world-famous pseudonym, the Bronte sisters published under male pseudonyms and the American constitutional debates used pseudonyms (Alexander Hamilton, John Madison and John Jay wrote under the famous "Publius"). Heck, numerous authors wrote under pseudonyms when calling colonial British operations into question before the Revolutionary War. Pen names have enabled some of the most important American events to transpire, and the hindrance of such a voice by Butler University threatens the freedom of speech in the future of college journalism.

What is in a pseudonym? What dictates the freedom of speech? Obviously, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.'s decision to shout fire in a crowded theater (Schenck v. United States) does not fall under the freedom of speech. However, Zimmerman's decision to criticize what he viewed as unjust University action is completely within his rights. Apparently he hurt administrative members' feelings and protests against their actions occurred. His singular voice of dissent could not single-handedly cause all the opinions and protests that occurred against the University administration. Butler University's decision to sue John Doe only propagates the statements made by Soodo Nym in his True BU blog. Zimmerman called the actions of Peter Alexander, dean of Butler University's College of Fine Arts, "abuses of power." Although Butler administrators claim these statements "libelous" the actions the University has taken to stifle student voice and silence public question is nothing less than that.

The future of free speech is unclear in today's day and age. Although America's past is rooted in free speech dictated under pseudonyms, clearly as opinions, they have not been libelous. Defamation could be viewed as causing ill opinion. However, Zimmerman's statements were only representative of his views as he called Butler policies into question.

Butler should invest more time into making a difference in its students' lives instead of covering up self-created messes that call its own integrity into question. This reputation band-aid and lawsuit only screams Nixonian ethics - after all, think of all the money that was spent on preserving the reputation of the President of the United States.

Butler University's course of action against Jess Zimmerman is misguided, unnecessary and poses a very terrifying problem for students and journalists everywhere: Will universities nationwide attempt to dictate free speech and muddy the growth of free thinking, following Butler University's course of action? It is up to us, as students and emerging individuals, to defend our right to write, protest and call into question what we view as wrong.

No court or university should keep us from doing just that.

From The Blue Banner at the University of North Carolina Ashville (11/11/09): An editorial entitled “Butler University foolishly stifles freedom of speech” comes out strongly in favor of freedom of speech and equally strongly opposed to the actions of the Butler administration. The editorial said, in part:

Blackballing or cracking down on critics creates a tension that never goes away and exacerbates an already bad situation.

Take UNC Asheville for instance. Here at The Blue Banner, we are sometimes critical of administrators, not because we have a personal vendetta to fulfill, but because we think they are not living up the expectations of this unique, diverse campus.

UNCA’s administration, to their credit, has not interfered in any way and continues to support an unfettered student press, unlike Butler.

Some administrators undoubtedly would say criticism of university leadership, whether at Butler or UNCA, harms the university. It is similar to the argument the Bush administration used to silence critics following 9/11. What those who raise such complaints fail to see is that it is possible to love an institution but disagree with its leadership.

If students like Zimmerman cannot challenge authority when they see something wrong on campus, then how can anything improve?

Butler administrators attempted to kill the messenger rather than solve the problems he pointed out, and it backfired on them.

Even though Butler dropped the lawsuit, the university is still pursuing other disciplinary action, according to an e-mail from Zimmerman.

The Blue Banner stands with Zimmerman and is proud he is actively taking on Butler.

Wishing for things to work out instead of working them out is irresponsible, and Zimmerman demonstrated courage by speaking out on what, undoubtedly, countless other Butler students and employees already knew.

Zimmerman’s case highlights the sad fact that, at universities across the country, the student press is often alone in publicly highlighting failures of school leadership.

As we have shown this semester, too many cases exist on this campus of faculty anonymously complaining about serious problems rather than publicly airing them so that creative and productive solutions can be found.

Sadly, some of the same faculty who encourage student expression and political involvement are themselves silent. But for those who truly cannot speak out for fear of losing their jobs, we will be your voice.

I’ll present some additional material tomorrow. In the meantime, let all of us know what you think of the support being offered around the country.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent posts since you were ill, Jess. Keep it up; don't get discouraged.

    The administration hopes to divert attention from their abuse of power. It seems to me that YOU have been defamed and could sue. Then the real story of what went on in the firing of the chair of music and the dean of LAS could be made public. What a disgrace!

    You have uncovered "the butler way"!