Butler University Sues Son of Evolution Weekend Founder

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According to Inside Higher Education, Butler University has sued one of its own undergraduates, junior Jess Zimmerman, for defamation. The incident was also picked up by Stu Kreisman at the Huffington Post.

Details are murky, at least to me, but evidently the university had demoted both Mr. Zimmerman’s father, Michael Zimmerman, founder of Evolution Weekend, and his stepmother, Andrea Gullickson, the chairman of the school of music. When Professor Gullickson was demoted, Jess Zimmerman anonymously wrote a blog in which he accused the university of acting arbitrarily. The suit was dropped yesterday, but there is no guarantee that the university will not reinstate it.

Mr. Zimmerman’s blog pages are archived here. I have read them through, perhaps not with the precision of a lawyer determined to make a case where there is none, and I have found nothing that could reasonably be considered threatening or defamatory, unless you consider in that category the implication that the dean is thin-skinned and needs to surround himself with yes-men and -women. I admit it is at least a bit tacky to publish such a blog anonymously, when you yourself have a personal interest in the case, but the anonymity as such did not seem to be the university’s main concern.

Michael Zimmerman is evidently negotiating with the university over his demotion. Inside Higher Education reports that the university suggested that it would settle with Michael Zimmerman, provided that Jess Zimmerman submitted to university disciplinary action and agreed not to appeal. It further asked for a gag order on both Zimmermans. I am not of a particularly suspicious nature, but it is completely unclear to me how Jess Zimmerman’s case is related to Michael Zimmerman’s case.

I find it hard to believe that this suit is anything more than a SLAPP suit, a strategic suit against public participation. These are lawsuits designed to intimidate political and other opponents and keep them silent with the threat of significant legal fees. If I remember correctly, they were pioneered by rich old men facing recall elections. Indiana, where Butler University is located, is one of several states that has enacted anti-SLAPP suit legislation. Typically, if the defendant successfully files an anti-SLAPP motion, then the plaintiff is responsible for the defendant’s attorney’s fees.

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As many of you may know, Michael Zimmerman is founder of the Clergy Letter Project, "an endeavor designed to demonstrate that religion and science can be compatible and to elevate the quality of the debate of this issue." On Wednesday,... Read More

27 Comments

This is interesting certainly but what is it substantially on topic for PT? While Zimmeran is the founder of Evolution Weekly I don’t quite see how that is connected to the dispute with the school. This seems more like something that is incidentally happening with individuals connected to something that PT would care about. (SLAPP suits are a serious problem and I could go on for a while ranting about how the legislation in place often isn’t enough but the fact that this is connected to serious other problems doesn’t make it ontopic for PT)

Yes, thank you. I had forgotten to include “Slightly Off Topic” in the categories list and have added it now.

Incidentally, you can sign a petition in favor of Jess Zimmerman here.

Michael Zimmerman also founded the clergy letter project. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clergy[…]tter_Project

Ok. Having now looked at the blog posts in question I can’t see anything remotely libelous. Frankly, I have to wonder about the competency of the university’s lawyers that they actually tried to do this.

Also Matt, sorry if my initial comment came across as obnoxious. Rereading it I can definitely see how it might be.

Mike Zimmerman was an Assistant prof at Oberlin and my editor when I first started writing about creationism/evolution stuff in the 1980s. All my contacts with him have been professional and I’ve found him to be an honorable man.

From what I’ve read, this brouhaha at Butler is an example of administrative B.S. Having been through a dab of that myself back in my academic days, I’m not surprised. Few have the requisite administrator skill set, which is to be able to bob and weave whilst simultaneously ducking for cover. New Provosts, which is what appears to be the case at Butler, are particularly problematic.

This is really an outrage. There’s not a whole lot more to be said.

My best guess: the Provost or the President went to the lawyers and said “find a way to shut down that blog”. The lawyers read the blog, realized that they could not bring disciplinary action against the student (or so I am guessing, I don’t have time to read the student handbook and Butler is not a public University).

This kind of criticism directed against administrators is not unusual. Most of the time it comes from faculty. I’ve never heard of a University going after a student.

The e-mails are definitely not harassment or threatening, not even close.

There are several national organizations the student might be able to get help from-I hope he does. I hope the AAUP censures Butler as well. The AAUP won’t normally get involved in student issues-for understandable reasons. But this one goes way beyond the pale.

It’s all part of the drive to corporatize the University.

… sorry if my initial comment came across as obnoxious.

I did not find Mr. Zelinsky’s comment at all obnoxious. Reasoned criticism is not obnoxious. The post was (slightly) off topic, but fortunately we have a category for that.

Incidentally, I defined SLAPP suit incorrectly - should have been strategic lawsuit, not strategic suit. Where are the trolls when we need them?

…I could go on for a while ranting about how the legislation in place often isn’t enough…

Not surprised - the rich always manage to protect themselves from the poor. If you can elaborate briefly, please feel free, and rant to the extent appropriate.

Chip, I’d go either further. This is suppression of free speech IMHO. I wonder whether Butler University’s administration has ever heard of John Peter Zenger:

Chip Poirot said:

This is really an outrage. There’s not a whole lot more to be said.

My best guess: the Provost or the President went to the lawyers and said “find a way to shut down that blog”. The lawyers read the blog, realized that they could not bring disciplinary action against the student (or so I am guessing, I don’t have time to read the student handbook and Butler is not a public University).

This kind of criticism directed against administrators is not unusual. Most of the time it comes from faculty. I’ve never heard of a University going after a student.

The e-mails are definitely not harassment or threatening, not even close.

There are several national organizations the student might be able to get help from-I hope he does. I hope the AAUP censures Butler as well. The AAUP won’t normally get involved in student issues-for understandable reasons. But this one goes way beyond the pale.

It’s all part of the drive to corporatize the University.

Typo, so am reposting this -

Chip, I’d go even further. This is suppression of free speech IMHO. I wonder whether Butler University’s administration has ever heard of John Peter Zenger.

P. S. Matt, though I realize that this rather off-topic, it is still worth noting regardless.

RBH said:

Mike Zimmerman was an Assistant prof at Oberlin and my editor when I first started writing about creationism/evolution stuff in the 1980s. All my contacts with him have been professional and I’ve found him to be an honorable man.

From what I’ve read, this brouhaha at Butler is an example of administrative B.S. Having been through a dab of that myself back in my academic days, I’m not surprised. Few have the requisite administrator skill set, which is to be able to bob and weave whilst simultaneously ducking for cover. New Provosts, which is what appears to be the case at Butler, are particularly problematic.

Michael has just sent out an email asking people to sign a petition, found here:

http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/butler

I was a chemistry major at Oberlin when Michael was there, but never had him in a class. He knows my father, who is a UU minister and signatory of the UU Clergy letter.

John Kwok said:

Typo, so am reposting this -

Chip, I’d go even further. This is suppression of free speech IMHO. I wonder whether Butler University’s administration has ever heard of John Peter Zenger.

P. S. Matt, though I realize that this rather off-topic, it is still worth noting regardless.

Butler is not a public University and therefore (unfortunately IMO) its students and faculty are not entitled to any First Amendment (or other Constitutional protection) wrt their status as students and faculty.

However, they are entitled to whatever contractual and policy protections they have for due process and academic freedom.

On the other hand, the use of SLAPPs to punish or chill speech that corporations (or others) find problematic is a broader threat to free speech in society. That a University would stoop to such tactics is alarming.

Someone named Bobby Fong coedited The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde for Oxford University Press. Please tell me it is not the same Bobby Fong who said

“Academic freedom does not provide protection for defamation and harassment,” Fong wrote. “Indeed, the free exchange of ideas demands that faculty, students and staff be protected from defamation and harassments because these are the means by which bullies intimidate others into silence.”

What, I wonder, would Oscar Wilde have said if he thought that his editor was the plaintiff in a SLAPP suit, a lawsuit designed expressly to “intimidate others into silence”?

Matt Young said:

Not surprised - the rich always manage to protect themselves from the poor. If you can elaborate briefly, please feel free, and rant to the extent appropriate.

Matt, the primary problem is it takes resources to win under an anti-SLAPP laws. So if someone doesn’t have the resources to start with, and can’t find a pro-bono lawyer, helpful clinic or the like, then they can’t ever get to the point that where they can get a judge to look at it. A lot of people when given even fairly bogus legal threats will hunker down and stop whatever they are doing, especially if it comes nicely typed up from a lawyer with a fancy name.

What needs to happen is: 1) more potential for damages and sanctions for filing SLAPP lawsuits. 2) more use of rule 11 sanctions and the equivalent state rules gainst lawyers who file these lawsuits. I don’t care what your client wants, if you can’t explain to him that what he wants to do is likely illegal then you need to go work for someone else. Lawyers have an obligation to society to act as a stopgap and not do crazy stuff. Rule 11 was changed in the early 1980s to be much lenient and that’s created more problems. There were actual problems with the earlier version, but it was in many ways better than the current version. When the right-wing talks about tort-reform it is popular to dismiss it as rabble rousing as an attempt to protect large corporations and to some extent it is but the push to return to the earlier version of Rule 11 is not a bad idea. There’s something wrong when the only people who get Rule 11 hits are people like Orly Taitz.

Unfortunately, given lobbying and given how many people in congress are actually lawyers and given the general inertia of new legislation this isn’t going to change soon. However, there is another option: Rule 11 sanctions and the equivalents in most state courts leave a lot of discretion to the judges in question. We can appoint judges who promise to be tough on this.

Note of these changes change the overarching problem since very often one never gets far enough to have Rule 11 or sanctions but making it more risky for lawyers to pull this sort of stunt certainly helps.

Another possible option is for state and federal bars to consider proactive investigation of lawyers who are repeatedly hitting people with bad legal threats. This is more difficult to do and there are serious problems with this idea but it may be worth considering.

If people are interested in this subject they should take a look at Overlawyerd and http://overlawyered.com/ and the Volokh Conspiracy http://volokh.com/ although both of those take a more libertarian bent to things and so have broader complaints. I suspect that both would have mixed feelings with the proposals I’ve mentioned above.

Thanks to Mr. Zelinsky for that clear explanation (which I found a little tame for a rant). Why am I not surprised that you need resources just to get inside the courtroom?

Chip,

Butler University is an American university and therefore it has to adhere to First Amendment rules. The same is true for Columbia University, since it is hosting anti-Islamic Dutch politician Geerd Wilders at a venue being organized by the campus chapter of the College Republicans at Columbia’s Morningside Heights (main) campus tonight:

Chip poirot said:

John Kwok said:

Typo, so am reposting this -

Chip, I’d go even further. This is suppression of free speech IMHO. I wonder whether Butler University’s administration has ever heard of John Peter Zenger.

P. S. Matt, though I realize that this rather off-topic, it is still worth noting regardless.

Butler is not a public University and therefore (unfortunately IMO) its students and faculty are not entitled to any First Amendment (or other Constitutional protection) wrt their status as students and faculty.

However, they are entitled to whatever contractual and policy protections they have for due process and academic freedom.

On the other hand, the use of SLAPPs to punish or chill speech that corporations (or others) find problematic is a broader threat to free speech in society. That a University would stoop to such tactics is alarming.

John Kwok said:

Chip,

Butler University is an American university and therefore it has to adhere to First Amendment rules. The same is true for Columbia University, since it is hosting anti-Islamic Dutch politician Geerd Wilders at a venue being organized by the campus chapter of the College Republicans at Columbia’s Morningside Heights (main) campus tonight:

Unfortunately, No. The First Amendment does not apply to private employers. In my opinion, it should apply to private Universities, at least with respect to the free speech clause.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act applies to private Universities that receive federal aid, but the Constitution does not-however much I may lament that fact.

Do private Universities have a moral and ethical obligation to respect the First Amendment? IMO, absolutely yes.

Again, as I pointed out-most of them do through academic freedom policies published in their faculty and student handbooks.

John Kwok -

For better or for worse, Chip is right here. To take an extreme example, Liberty University requires that its professors teach within their sectarian dogma, and is entitled to do so.

Unlike Chip, I don’t have a problem with this, as long as public and respectable private institutions aren’t compromised. In fact, I strongly support the right of people who choose so to have their own sectarian schools and colleges, although I do not think that the degrees granted should be recognized as equivalent to mainstream degrees in most circumstances, unless they really are.

However, an institution like Columbia, although private, does adhere to very high standards of academic freedom.

There are two reasons why they might do so -

1) Voluntarily, one would hope.

2) Because faculty organizations like the AAUP fought hard to assure protection for their members with regard to academic freedom. LU faculty presumably don’t have organizational protection.

Butler probably does have faculty with some sort of organizational protections.

As for the private activities of students, they should have a very low level of control over that. It seems to me (and everyone else here, apparently) that they are desperately over-reaching (albeit possibly with success) with regard to the son.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if all of this is related (duh), and if there is some kind of academic politics driving it all.

Whether there is a creationism element is unclear. We can state with confidence that if an ID/creationism follower (overt or not) were to obtain a high position at a small private university, then it would be highly plausible that they might behave with excess hostility toward a faculty member associated with promoting public understanding and acceptance of the theory of evolution.

However, we can also note that this sort of thing could happen for any number of other reasons. Still, I’ll be interested to se how it develops.

harold said:

John Kwok -

For better or for worse, Chip is right here. To take an extreme example, Liberty University requires that its professors teach within their sectarian dogma, and is entitled to do so.

Unlike Chip, I don’t have a problem with this, as long as public and respectable private institutions aren’t compromised. In fact, I strongly support the right of people who choose so to have their own sectarian schools and colleges, although I do not think that the degrees granted should be recognized as equivalent to mainstream degrees in most circumstances, unless they really are.

I agree-provided these institutions get zero-and I mean absolutely zero financial support from the federal government. However, there are almost no private colleges/Universities that would survive if their students did not receive federal financial aid. Because they receive federal financial aid for their students, they are legally obligated (as I earlier pointed out) to follow Civil Rights Laws. But why is freedom of speech not deemed to be as equally an imporant principle of non-discrimination?

However, an institution like Columbia, although private, does adhere to very high standards of academic freedom.

Right-because as you say- in part due to the efforts of organizations like the AAUP. Liberty University effectively thumbs its nose at everything the University stands for-substituting dogma for education. As a practical matter, Liberty students get exposed to many ideas under the principle of “know your enemy”, but even college democrats have had problems at LU.

As for the private activities of students, they should have a very low level of control over that. It seems to me (and everyone else here, apparently) that they are desperately over-reaching (albeit possibly with success) with regard to the son.

Yes-fortunately the Courts have not applied the infamous “Bong hits for Jesus” standard to Universities. In principle, a private University could ask students to adhere to an off campus code of conduct. I suspect that BU’s lawyers looked at the Student Conduct Code and realized that they couldn’t discipline the student internally. So they chose to go the route of a defamation suit.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if all of this is related (duh), and if there is some kind of academic politics driving it all.

Why Harold: are you suggesting that there is gambling going on at Rick’s? I am shocked-shocked I tell you!

Matt, check out the Butler University website, under “Meet Our President”, (http://www.butler.edu/president/biography), where I found the following:

“Following graduation from Harvard in 1973 with an A.B. in English, magna cum laude, and election to Phi Beta Kappa, Fong returned to California to earn his doctorate in English literature from UCLA in 1978. His dissertation research formed the basis for his lifelong scholarship in the works of Oscar Wilde. He is the editor of Poems and Poems In Prose, volume one in the Oxford English Texts edition of the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, designated by Choice as one of the outstanding academic books of 2000. “

My friend Gaythia takes me too literally - of course it was the same Bobby Fong.

Also, I received a semi-private e-mail from Michael Zimmerman but assumed it was not for public consumption. According to a recent trackback, it has been published here and gives Professor Zimmerman’s own account of events.

Well, I have to say Butler comes off quite badly in this exchange.

John Kwok said:

Chip, I’d go either further. This is suppression of free speech IMHO. I wonder whether Butler University’s administration has ever heard of John Peter Zenger:

“Free speech” is the conduct between the person and the government. It is not an absolute right and can be regulated and even suppressed all within the law. The “freedom of speech” does not apply to many NGOs, private organizations and inter-individual conduct as they are not governments/government organizations.

No doubt you’ll pontificate more in this thread. You’ll probably be mostly, if not completely, wrong.

Huffington Post has a piece on this affair titled Guantanamo Bay - College Division.

Oops. The above piece was the second of two. Here’s the first.

In addition to the link given by RBH, Jess Zimmerman has initiated another blog, I am “John Doe”, I think in mid-October. It appears now that the suit has not been withdrawn. If I understand it correctly, the university said it would not sue Mr. Zimmerman, but it has not withdrawn the suit against John Doe. In case you have any doubt about the identity of John Doe, just review the name of the blog.

In the last few days, Mr. Zimmerman published a carefully researched open letter by Gaythia Weis, who occasionally haunts these comments, and an essay by Marshall Gregory, the Ice Professor of English at Butler. I am sorry to tell you that of the 10 comments on Professor Gregory’s essay, 6 were anonymous. At least some of those were purportedly written by tenured Butler faculty; only one faculty member signed her name.

Indeed, one tenured faculty member wrote an impassioned comment expressing anger and embarrassment at the university’s handling of the case - and then with equal passion stated his or her unwillingness to sign the comment for fear of retribution. An untenured faculty member went even further - wrote using a laptop computer connected to the unsecured wi-fi network of a complete stranger.

Mr. Zimmerman is reportedly bearing up well, but his blog entry of October 24 tells us that the persecution is taking its toll.

Matt Young said:

In addition to the link given by RBH, Jess Zimmerman has initiated another blog, I am “John Doe”, I think in mid-October. It appears now that the suit has not been withdrawn. If I understand it correctly, the university said it would not sue Mr. Zimmerman, but it has not withdrawn the suit against John Doe. In case you have any doubt about the identity of John Doe, just review the name of the blog.

Butler University has now apparently dismissed the lawsuit against the student, but possibly could still proceed with an internal discipline procedure. See the John Doe blog Matt lists for more information.

I think that the following quote is appropriate: “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. ~John Stuart Mill, /On Liberty/, 1859 “

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on October 20, 2009 3:06 PM.

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