Don’t Criticize Me, You’re Making Me Uncomfortable, I’ll Sue You.

Here‘s an interesting story: an undergraduate at Bulter University blogged about administration and their (according to him, evil) ways, and is now being sued by the University for defamation and making people feel unsafe because he was mean to them.  If you read the whole article, you get a sense that there was really nothing libelous or defamatory in his comments, but that university has an army of attorneys on its payroll and they wanted to punish the kid (who blogged anonymously, but since revealed his real name) and his parents (both of whom happen to be faculty at Butler).

What’s fascinating about this story is not the fact that a university would sue its own student – as the student points out on a newly started blog that is designed to chronicle the lawsuit (“I am John Doe”), university’s claim that they did not know who the author of the blog was is false (according to him) – but that there’s such a high level of sensitivity to criticism evident in the attitude of administration here – don’t say anything negative or we will sue you. A simple “We will not leave this matter alone” is taken to mean something vicious like “We will come to your house and make you feel unsafe” – the student himself says in the article that he was certainly passionate about his blog and probably wrote mean things, but still he felt that what he was saying was true and so forth.

Let’s take this scenario and imagine a world in which faculty members behave the same way as administrators at Butler – if I write an anonymous review of your article and I write that “this is a poorly argued series of conjectures that in the end come to nothing substantive” and you take it personally, can you then sue me to reveal my identity and call my review libelous and defamatory? I mean I am suggesting in my review that you wrote a shitty paper implying therefore that you are an idiot and a horrible scholar – can you sue me for that?

What about student evaluations? What if I read a student evaluation for a faculty member and it says something like “This guy doesn’t know how to teach, this is by far the worst class I ever took” – can I sue this anonymous evaluator and having revealed his identity ask him to compensate the faculty member he was mean to?

Clearly, this utter legalization of our interactions (plus corporatization of our universities) is creating an atmosphere in which people with money and opportunities will file lawsuits against their neighbor’s loud music or against their mother-in-law dislike of their personal taste in clothing or their boss’s bad breath – what is going on here?

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11 thoughts on “Don’t Criticize Me, You’re Making Me Uncomfortable, I’ll Sue You.

  1. I like the couple of the first comments on that John Doe’s blog – clearly written by someone with the kind of mentality that was very popular in the Eastern Soviet block – “don’t say anything, keep your head down, what’s the point of speaking out anyway? it will hurt your career” and so on. I was going to leave a comment as well but saw that Mikhail already beat me to it.

    This story is making me very uncomfortable as well – I think I’m going to file a lawsuit against Perverse Egalitarianism for bringing this to my attention and thus making me think about issues I did not want to think about – check your mailbox soon…

  2. I do like the idea of suing your students for unflattering evaluations or suing journal reviewers for mean comments – I would go even further and sue yourself for sometimes having negative thoughts about yourself, doubting yourself and so on.

    Did you all see Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book? I think it fits with this story.

  3. There’s a website on which doctors’ patients can comment, anonymously, about the quality of care they’ve received. Doctors claim that the anonymity gives people implicit license to libel. So now some doctors are requiring patients to sign a form agreeing not to post their opinions on such websites or else the doctors will withhold care. One can only assume that the AMA has a host of attorneys at their disposal to track down violators.

  4. I think it’s a great idea – I’m going to have to make my students sign the following form in the beginning of each semester (administrators, take note, it’s a brilliant way to make sure your institution is not disparaged anonymously on vile websites like “Rate Your Professor”):

    “I, student’s name, will not leave any negative comments about this professor, regardless of the quality of education I receive.”

  5. It’s sad that these sorts of stories are almost always about administrators – universities embarrass themselves almost exclusively in these sorts of administrative actions. Where are the stories about faculty achievements making a name for a school? Where are the stories about “votes of confidence” (do they even have those?). It seems that universities are run like corporations and these sorts of administrators are in great demand since they can run these institutions “efficiently” – was there ever a time when colleges and universities were just about education and not “image” or “prestige” or “reputation”? This story will clearly damage Butler’s “reputation” – what were they thinking? I hope someone gets fired, that’s the only kind of language they understand. But then again they’ll probably move on to another school and bully some other faculty and/or students.

  6. Oh well, this story was in InsideHigherEd, so I guess people are paying attention – as I don’t know any of the parties involved and I only read what everyone else read, it’s hard to make an objective judgment, but it seems that there’s no reason to release lawyers on a poor kid – have you read the lawsuit papers? Most of the stuff there is childish in comparison with the sort of things being said about, say, President Obama and yet no one’s suing Ann Colter. Clearly, as the kid says, university probably knew he was behind the blog and wanted to scare him – “don’t play with big shots, kid” – there’s like 3 attorneys on this case – the fact that the kid is not backing out is okay with me, he’ll probably grow up to be a better human being than most.

  7. Thanks for posting this Mikhail. Your thought experiment makes clear that the reasoning(ish) used by these administrators is one which would be quite corrosive of practices taken within universities to be conducive to better scholarship and teaching. I also think it’s interesting that this an act of retaliation which, if widely known, would make the university look really bad. Is that just stupidity, do you think, or a gamble like “well, if word spreads enough we’ll look bad but if it doesn’t then we’ll get our way”?

    • It looks to me like they wanted to scare the kid into revealing his real name and maybe then punishing him for it. The fact however that his father also loses his deanship and is then offered to settle his complaint together with the lawsuit against his son is super-sketchy, if you ask me. So let’s assume they were, in fact, sincere in their attempts to reveal the identity of someone they claimed threatened their administrators (calling the police was one option, of course, but they decided to go for a lawsuit) – how is his father’s complaint that he lost his deanship related to this if not in a way of intimidation? I don’t think it was stupidity, I think it was just arrogance – this is the very first case (Indianapolis Star reported) in which a university is suing one of its students over things said on blogs – surely passions run high in higher education, surely we get angry at each other and so on, but suing a student (and they knew he was a student because they were arrogant enough to tell his father that they indeed knew his son was behind it)?

  8. Pingback: What in the hell … :: … is going on here? :: October :: 2009

  9. You can sign the petition asking the Butler administration to apologize for filing a lawsuit against Jess Zimmerman. The petition is being circulated at

    You can read about the issue on the Chronicle of Higher Education website (for background, the Chronicle provides links to the relevant sites):

    This is not just a local issue. It is of concern not only to higher education at large, but all who value freedom of speech and freedom from institutional oppression. Thanks for signing and please pass along on your sites.

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