Jess Zimmerman is a junior at Butler University in Indianapolis. Last year he wrote criticisms of Butler's administration in an anonymous blog. It was an opinion piece. Apparently the administrators at Butler don't take too kindly to criticism because now they've taken the unprecedented action of suing Jess and threatening him with their full arsenal of on campus punishments. We now have the first case of a university suing a student over online free speech. (Full disclosure: Jess's father is an acquaintance of mine.)
Yes, I know the Internet is the wild west of journalism. If you believe in any conspiracy or have a very unusual political bent, there are hundreds of sites that will support their beliefs. Responsible adults usually ignore these criticisms and let them slide off their backs. However, Butler has decided to make an example of young Mr. Zimmerman to control Internet content and silence future criticisms of the university.
The biggest crime seems to be that Mr. Zimmerman wrote the blog anonymously. While writing criticisms under a pseudonym could be seen by some as a lapse in judgment, it certainly does not rise to the level of a crime. But then again, there is a long tradition in American history of powerful anonymous writings from Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton to James Madison and John Jay. In any case, nothing slanderous was written in Mr. Zimmerman's blog. They were opinion pieces.
The bog gained popularity on campus, much to the chagrin of the administration. Two e-mails agreeing with Zimmerman's views were sent to the university provost, one of which might have been a bit overzealous. Apparently the president and provost became so alarmed by the e-mails that during a presentation to the faculty senate (a full ten months later) the president referenced the shootings at Virginia Tech. Is this getting a little out of hand? You betcha. (The details of the controversy are here. Zimmerman's blog is here.)
A few days ago president Obama was asked by a youngster at a town hall meeting in New Orleans "Why does everybody hate you?" Obama replied "Take it with a grain of salt... Don't take it too seriously." A much wiser approach than suing a student.