Administrators’ stifling of student free speech rights troubling
A blatantly censorial lawsuit filed against a Butler University junior is a threat to students’ freedom of speech everywhere.
The student, Jess Zimmerman, was writing an anonymous blog, “TrueBU,” ruminating about college life. Zimmerman began criticizing Butler officials for a number of reasons, including the dismissal of his stepmother, the head of Butler’s music school. As tension grew and officials became frustrated, they decided to file a lawsuit against Zimmerman for publishing what they perceived were libelous and defamatory statements against the administration.
Some of the comments in question were aimed at Butler’s dean of Fine Arts, Peter Alexander.
“Peter Alexander, dean of the [College of Fine Arts] is power-hungry and afraid of his own shadow. … He drives away talented administrators. He frustrates students within the departments. He hurts the ability of the school to recruit talented students and faculty members. He announces to the campus that the Butler Way, the ideals for which the school and everyone at it stands, mean nothing,” Zimmerman wrote under the name “Soodo Nym.”
After filing the suit in January, Butler officials have since dropped it.
As students-journalists who relish freedom of speech, we have an obligation to stand up for Zimmerman and push back against unconstitutional restrictions on college students.
( Daily Iowan video feature )
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.
Whether they like it, public administrators are subject to intense — and sometimes unsavory — scrutiny. That was certainly true in the Butler University case. But Zimmerman’s critiques did not cross the line from strident evisceration to libelous material. And attempting to limit his speech because of dissenting comments is unconstitutional.
Michael Blickman, a legal counsel for the university, was not available for comment Thursday afternoon.
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.
While Butler officials succeeded in their attempt to reveal Zimmerman’s once-anonymous blogging identity, their actions ultimately hurt their reputation. University papers, such as Michigan State’s The State News and Indiana University’s Indiana State Daily, have published editorials in support of Zimmerman, and other media outlets have covered the story as well. We’re happy there has been such an outpouring of support and show of solidarity.
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.
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