A voice with no name
When the right to speak freely on a college campus is threatened by the fear of disciplinary action, anonymous speech can be an important tool to restore those rights.
“We see all too often that criticism of university officials is punished and anonymous speech permits students to write sincerely without the fear of punishment,” said Adam Kissel, the Director of the Individual Rights Defense Program for the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Freedom of expression on college campuses is necessary to foster a healthy learning environment, but if that speech is critical of a university, protecting it may not be an administrative priority.
Those involved in higher education, from students to administrators, create an interconnected academic community and it is common for individuals to choose not to speak about an issue because of their positions within that community, said Jess Zimmerman, a junior at Butler University who started an anonymous blog to voice his concerns without academic ramifications.
“Anonymous speech allows you to break free of that and have things discussed and have important conversations that might not otherwise be allowed to happen on a campus,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman, under the alias Soodo Nym, started the anonymous blog TruBU in October 2008, to chronicle student life at Butler University and to examine a series of unpopular administrative actions. Zimmerman created the blog as a “sounding board” for students at Butler and invited others to contribute.
Zimmerman chose to write the blog anonymously because he did not want to lose his position as the class president and member of the Council of Presidential Affairs (CPA), an intermediary group between students and administrators.
“From seeing how [members of the administration] interacted in the past and from interacting with them, I had a pretty good feeling that if I said anything negative about them I would be shut out of those interactions. I wouldn’t be able to do my job,” Zimmerman said.
Historically, anonymous speech is protected by the United States Constitution and Supreme Court rulings, because it gives a voice to those with minority or disfavored views without retaliation, said Sam Bayard, assistant director of the Citizen Media Law Project, an organization that provides legal training and resources for individuals and organizations involved in online and citizen media.
“It allows for people to voice their opinions and their views in situations where they think that perhaps their identity itself might skew people’s reception of that speech,” Bayard said.
TruBU chronicled the dismissal of Andrea Gullickson, Butler University’s former music chair. Zimmerman, who is Gullickson’s stepson, included e-mails from Gullickson, Butler President Bobby Fong, and anonymous faculty members and students.
Zimmerman wrote in the blog that he thought Dean of the College of Fine Arts Peter Alexander and Provost Jamie Comstock were abusing their power and lying to the students and faculty at Butler about why Gullickson was dismissed from her position.
On January 8, 2009, Butler University filed a lawsuit against “John Doe aka Soodo Nym” for alleged defamatory and libelous statements posted on TruBU and for alleged harassing and threatening e-mails from the e-mail address thetruebu [at] gmail [dot] com.
Six days before the suit was filed, Vice President of Student Affairs Levester Johnson requested a meeting with Zimmerman.
“When I went in, [Johnson] showed me a number of e-mails that I had written that demonstrated that I knew who the anonymous blogger was and it was at that point that I knew they were reading my e-mail,” Zimmerman said.
Following the meeting and a warning of the impending lawsuit sent to the anonymous e-mail, Zimmerman took TruBU offline because he didn’t want to be sued by the university.
“I shut it down then, assuming that [the controversy] would dissipate,” Zimmerman said.But the lawsuit did not go away and Butler attorneys confirmed the identity of Soodo Nym in June through subpoenas granted by a judge, Fong indicated in a Faculty Senate meeting on October 13, 2009.
“The university’s intention was never to sue a student, the university’s intention was to find out who was writing what they wrote,” said Marc Allan, public relations representative for Butler University.
Suing an anonymous source is a common legal tactic to find out the source’s identity. If a plaintiff thinks what is written is a false statement and harms his reputation, he can request a subpoena from a judge to uncover the blogger’s identity to sue the person for libel, said Rebecca Jeschke, media coordinator for the Electric Frontier Foundation, an organization that defends online civil liberties.
When granting a subpoena to reveal the identity of an anonymous defendant, the bottom line for the courts is whether there is plausible evidence that the person broke the law, Bayard said.
“The law certainly has to find a way to balance the benefits of some level of anonymous discourse with the negative consequences of allowing people to hide behind anonymity,” Bayard said.
For a statement to be libelous, it must be a statement of fact, not opinion, it must be proven false, and it must be damaging in a way that could harm a person’s reputation or business.
“Something that happens a lot is that people have to fight off bogus attempts to unmask them if they are anonymous, when someone has an opinion or a true fact that somebody doesn’t like and therefore tries to unmask the blogger in order to scare them into not speaking,” Jeschke said.
Zimmerman said university attorneys threatened to replace his name in the lawsuit over the summer, but on October 30, 2009 — two weeks after Zimmerman publicly announced he was the author of TruBU — Butler dropped the lawsuit against “John Doe.”
“I believe that once Jess came forward the situation was resolved pretty quickly,” Allan said.
After dropping the lawsuit, Butler University proceeded with internal disciplinary action as a result of Zimmerman’s speech on the blog. As part of the agreement, Zimmerman is not allowed speak publicly about the details of the resolution but said overall, he is happy with it.
William Watts, an English professor at Butler University and a vocal supporter of Zimmerman, said threatening legal action against a student for speech that is not violent or threatening in nature should not be permissible in any academic community.
“What I think is deeply wrong about what has happened here is the response of the university backed up by high-paid lawyers and unlimited legal resources. The response was disproportionate,” Watts said.
Attaching a byline when writing about heated and controversial topics can quickly identify the writer and make him or her an easier legal target, Bayard said.
“But in other ways, [using your name] lends credibility and seriousness to your work and that provides some level of protection against legal threats as well,” Bayard said.
Watts wrote a message that included his name on the TruBU blog about the climate of fear on campus and why it is important to stand up to power. He also mentioned in the post that he was critical of the blog’s anonymity because it reinforced the notion of fear.
“There are perils to writing anonymously. I think one could be misunderstood. But I do think there are situations where in order to get a view across, particularly when you are dealing with a very powerful institution, that I understand why people write anonymously,” Watts said.
It is harder to gain credibility when writing anonymously because many people will be suspicious about the reason the writer wishes to remain anonymous, Bayard said.
“When you are online and you see anonymous speech, you should start with the presumption that it is unreliable and maybe through [the writer’s] further speech and showing their reliability they can gain your trust,” Bayard said.
Anonymity has an undeserved negative connotation, Zimmerman said, because however the speech is presented, if it is well written and supported by truthful, factual evidence, it can help effect change in governance.
By making issues publicly known and not being reckless about the facts, students can change the actions of their administrators to create a better academic community, Kissel said.
“Students can shine the light of criticism on the university for failing to live up to its promises, as [Justice Louis] Brandeis said many decades ago, ‘Sunlight is one of the best disinfectants,’ “ Kissel said.
Watts said Jess’ blog was “fairly careful, fairly judicious,” and administrators should welcome and learn from criticism, anonymous or not, to develop a stronger and healthier academic community.
“We must insist on communities that allow for the free expression of ideas and we must be confident that speech that is honest and truthful will be protected,” Watts said. “Fear is the most pernicious censor of all.”
Zimmerman said it is important for students not to be afraid of their administration and talk about issues that they care about even if the opinions are not accepted or controversial.
“If students have something that they want to talk about and they feel that they need to be anonymous then by all means they should. Anonymous writing is one of the biggest tools in journalism and in dialog as long as it is used with some degree of responsibility,” Zimmerman said.
By Laura Dobler, SPLC staff writer
reports, Spring 2010