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.