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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.