Butler University sues Anonymous Blogger

Posted by Brad J. Ward | Posted in Blogging, Community, Ethics, Higher Education, Management, Thoughts | Posted on 10-16-2009

22

As I noted on Twitter at the beginning of the week, Butler University has come forth with a lawsuit against an anonymous blogger for making libelous and defamatory statements about administrators on his blog, The True BU. This post is intended to be a glimpse at how The True BU got started, as well as provide additional insight regarding my previous communications with the defendant. Everything posted here is factual to my knowledge.

Several things about this story (more at Inside Higher Ed) are interesting to me, being a former employee of Butler and one who had several conversations with the student being sued (while under his moniker).

  1. A year ago to the day I posted the lawsuit link on Twitter, this student got his start as an anonymous commenter in our BUForums, an area that I was in charge of and the community manager for.
  2. This student had previously applied to be a Butler Blogger, and I had several email correspondences with him regarding it.
  3. We correctly guessed who the anonymous commenter was about 2 weeks after he began commenting in our forums, due to several pieces of ‘evidence’ that matched what he said with who we thought it was.

There is also a huge difference between how we handled the anonymous blogger in the Admissions area, and how the higher level university employees handled it.

I’ve had a hard time formulating a blog post around this in the interest of the parties involved and the situation, so instead I’m going to share some of my correspondence through the early days with this student.  From there, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how a University can handle this better in the future and have a discussion regarding anonymous commenters.  We had a good discussion about it at the University of Missouri Social Media Workshop yesterday, so I’d like to hear your thoughts as well. Here’s the rough timeline:

1) October 13, 2008: Anonymous student (“Soodo Nym”) creates new email address (thetruebu@gmail.com) and joins the BUForums (http://go.butler.edu/cs/forums).  Posts ‘An Open Letter to BUPD‘.  A BU student blogger follows up with a lengthy response (mostly in agreement).  I am asked by administrators to delete entire thread, we settle on deleting student blogger comment, posting my response, and locking the thread. I email Soodo Nym to let him know why we have locked the thread, and also to talk about the BUForums. I explain that if his goal is to get his voice out to the student body, a letter to the Collegian or DawgNet, or perhaps a blog, might be better since current students aren’t on this site. (It was a recruitment tool.)

2) October 14, 2008: “Soodo Nym” returns to the forums to post that he has started an anonymous blog (this post has since been deleted by Butler U.). The post said (Click here to see the full text):

It is anonymous, not moderated by Butler, and itscorrespondents are all butler students.  The official description ofthe blog is: This blog is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, andleast of all an adventure, for Butler University is not an adventurefor those who stand face to face with it. It will simply try to tellthe true, anonymous stories of Butler University. It’s the truth. It’sgood. It’s bad. It’s real.”"

I respond to the post in the forums, then receive an email back from the anonymous student (Click here to see the full text):

My response: ” It’s unfortunate that you think the Butler Bloggers are moderated! Ask any of them, we want them to share the good and the bad as well. It’s a part of college, as you know.  We pride our Bloggers on being unmoderated and unfiltered, and I’m sure any prospective student who has emailed a Blogger or posted a comment to ask a question sees that. Good luck with your anonymous blogging endeavor!”

His response: “Brad, I believe you.  I know some of the bloggers and know thatthey are encouraged to write whatever they want.  The fact of thematter is, though, when I was looking at colleges, the blogs that meantthe most to me were the ones absolutely unaffiliated with theinstitution itself.  We are trying to fill that gap.  Though I mustsay, and please pass this along to your bloggers–Butler’s bloggers doa fantastic job and are some of the best that I saw during my collegesearch. — Soodo Nym”

You hear that? The Butler Bloggers are some of the best. :)

Next, there is some self-correction from the community, when Liz posts:

“Um lets be real here…you’re pretty much trying to get people to spill juicy gossip about Butler University–things that could be true or untrue, because it is anonymous. So technically thats not reliable at all. Just saying. We are allowed to say whatever we want to and answer honestly about any questions asked as Bloggers associated with the University. If you have read the blogs then I think you would find that we are all pretty open about what we like or dislike about Butler. Personally, I think Butler is an adventure. I think college is an adventure and a part of life that you should cherish and enjoy, not criticize and complain about. Anyhow, if I was a prospective student I wouldn’t trust your establishment too much. No offense, but the whole anonymous thing and talking about it being “bad and real” is a pretty big turnoff. I will be interested to hear more about your intellectual discussion though.”

Soodo Nym responds:

“Yes, Liz, let’s be real here.  Frankly, you’re wrong.  The blog is there to encouage independent thought and to promote intellectual discussion (there is already a reasonably interesting one starting up about the greek vs. non greek divide.  I make it clear to everyone who asks to be a contributer that TrueBU is as forum of discussion, not one of attack.  The idea that I want to propogate “juicy gossip” is ridiculous.  We already have a site like that (Brad’s Note: JuicyCampus.com was a hot topic of discussion at this time. Article from October 15.) and frankly, it’s disgusting. You’re blog, I might add is impressive.  I’m a fan.  I meant no disprespect towards the Butler Bloggers, but your unfair characterizations and assumptions about my project are exactly the types of things that will not be posted on it. Thanks.”

3) October 14, 2008: Another blog is started by this student, one that has largely gone under the radar through the development of the story.  It’s at http://butlermusicnow.blogspot.com, and the first post states “Frustrations: Nancy Booth Davis needs to go.” This is the beginning of “MusicGate” at Butler University. (See comment below from Jess regarding this blog.)

At this point, pieces start to come together on who the student is from these blog posts. Freshman, music student, male, non-greek… one co-worker asks “Think its someone who applied and we didn’t hire?” Since the forums weren’t promoted to the student body and since only Freshman had seen the site through our promotion before….. Bingo.

Enter Soodo Nym, also known as Jess Zimmerman.  Jess was extremely interested in being a Butler Blogger and had emailed me several times (one email here, another here), about applying to be a blogger. I emailed the application (here), but he actually never returned the application. From this day forward, it was pretty much lined up in our minds who was behind it all. As you’ll see in other news coverage, Zimmerman was the son of a Dean and the stepson of a Department Chair.)

4) December 16, 2008: MusicGate started and continued for about two months, leading up to a sit-in at the Dean’s office (my photo of that event is here). (Ironically, I went back to my desk from this event and that’s the day that FacebookGate all began.  Who knew that Butler U would have been the epicenter of so many internet-gates that day?)

5) December 20, 2009: Soodo Nym posted something, and I was enjoying the inside coverage of these proceedings as a new view of what was happening on campus.  I sent Soodo Nym a Facebook message regarding his post on a Sunday over Christmas Break:

5) March 4, 2009: Another blog, Butler Underground, began,  Several posts (here, here and here) outline the whole TrueBU.blogspot.com situation, with several posts archiving what was said on these blogs.  They later removed some of the coverage, but the above links paint the story further from the student perspective.

6) October 13, 2009: News breaks that Butler University is suing the anonymous blogger.

7) October 16, 2009: 367 days after it begins, Inside Higher Ed covers the story in depth and shares how in-depth this issue is. (Article)

5 Questions and Takeaways

There are obviously many levels and details to this situation, many of which we might not know, might have heard wrong, and probably will never know.  So here are some discussion questions to get things rolling.

  1. Should we have handled the anonymous commenter differently at the beginning? Had we not locked the post (something I was against, which I know is chronicled in my twitter stream), would the student had stayed on ‘our turf’ for these conversations rather than starting his own anonymous blog?
  2. Was he merely providing the truth and facts surrounding the situation?  His relationship to the parties involved gave him access to all the internal emails, which wouldn’t have otherwise been seen by the campus community and beyond.
  3. It’s amazing to see the power of a blog in action, and watch one student take up an issue and go with it.
  4. Where was the Butler PR department at the beginning of MusicGate, etc?  And more importantly, what should their role have been in this situation? No one was commenting publicly. Had they been they are the beginning of this blog, could much of what’s happening now been avoided? Was it my responsibility to pass this along to them, or should PR offices be expected to follow conversations and monitor them from the start on their own by now?
  5. What might have happened if the student was hired to be a blogger in an official capacity and decided to cover this story from that platform? How should/would/can administrators respond to that potential situation?

Let’s hear your thoughts!!

Comments posted (22)

Hey Brad,

I really do appreciate this history but I want to make one clarification: I did not start the butlermusicnow blog. While I suspect I know who did, I had never seen it until now.

Again, thanks for providing such a detailed account! Butler is a worse-off place without you.

Jess

I said it before, and I’ll say it again. Truth is an ultimate defense against libel/slander/defamation. As long as nothing was presented as fact that wasn’t, and as long as opinion was clearly separate (I think it was), Butler has absolutely no case.

If you don’t want people printing bad things about you, don’t do stupid stuff.

I agree with Fienen.

I’d like to address one of your questions about the PR office. I’m our Web Content Editor and am housed in the PR & Marketing office at our college. It can be quite frustrating to be in PR&M and be the last to know. If we aren’t told about an upcoming event that a dept. is having, we can’t promote it; like-wise, if we’re not given a heads-up on a possible situation, we can’t address it. On limited resources and being short-staffed (but who isn’t, right?), monitoring all conversations about your institution in a timely manner can be quite challenging. In the PR business, even knowing one day sooner than you may have found out on Facebook, Twitter, etc. (however long it takes to get a foothold and others began talking about it) can make a difference.

I say if someone knows of a possible situation, shoot off an email to PR.

Often, even the hands of PR offices/staff are tied. Just as you were told to lock the post even though you knew it wasn’t the best plan, PR staff also report to administrators that may feel silence is the route to take on certain subjects that they may otherwise address.

You/we may never know the full extent of why/what PR could/couldn’t do.

Now I must add the disclaimer that my views are not necessarily the views of my college/place of employment, nor do they necessarily reflect actual persons or events :-)

LOL! Butler is trying to control the story. This is going to be fun to watch.

@Susan Re: College/University online PR

I work at a University as well, and – although not in the Media & Communications Dept – I follow virtually everything said online about our institution.

Even being ‘short staffed’, you can create and monitor RSS Feeds and/or Google Alerts emailed to your inbox.

Currently I monitor Twitter, blogs, Youtube, websites, news, and others using keywords as well as following other sources that have a history of staying on top of the latest news.

It’s not perfect – RSS and Google Alerts do not provide a real-time stream of posts as they happen, only as soon as they find them (ie spidering) and/or as often as you choose to be informed – but it’s pretty good.

Doing manual searches on Google and Twitter search are much closer to real time, but having automated notifiers is easy to set up and convenient to read periodically during the work day.

Having said that, and as you allude to, *knowing* what’s being said about your school on the internet doesn’t mean you have a free hand to respond to it (let alone respond in the way you know is really going to be most effective and accepted).

I’ve repeatedly banged my head on my desk more than a few times as I watch political correctness or lack of initiative kill any chance to address a situation like it should be.

….but I’m almost always the to first to know when a problem’s cropped up in the first place. :)

@Steve, while I appreciate your knowing what’s going on at your institution, I have similar RSS feeds set up, and finding time every day to monitor and read them all is a no-win situation for me. I know many are able to monitor it in a timely manner, but definitely having faculty/staff from the college give us a heads-up is always helpful. :-)

I never thought that I would ever see a university sue a student for expressing their thoughts? What is going there?

The challenge of this kind of situation is that it’s really hard for the university to come out looking like a winner. Even if they win the lawsuit, they look like they’re playing Big Brother and trying to stifle a student’s First Amendment rights, whatever the context. So the suit complicates everything and paints them unfavorably.

I agree with Susan above — I monitor all things social media about our college (thank you, addictomatic) but it’s the old-fashioned things happening within walls that don’t spill into social media that leave us caught short. I’ve come into work on Monday morning to learn a really well-known band performed on Saturday and no one bothered to tell us. Or if sticky situations arise that may require PR advice, some people may be hesitant because they have this odd thought we’ll run to the media with it. Cuz we’re former journalists, guess we can’t be trusted?

That said, our office hosts the blogs and recruits the bloggers ourselves so we’d be the first to learn it. I checked on having other offices involved before launching, but couldn’t raise much interest. So it became a de facto communication function, but it’s allowed me to get to know some excellent students, which is good.

[...] Butler University sues anonymous blogger (tags: blogs law highered highedweb universities colleges backlash authenticity identity) Twitter Updates [...]

After 2013, I must say. Admissions people do not understand the internet.

organized chaos, organized chaos.

Dear Brad,

Thanks for the account you offer here. I do have a question for you here: Are you saying that others at Butler would have known who Soodo Nym was in December of 2008? I can see that you and perhaps others in your office knew this, but would that information have been availalbe to the upper administrators who got so exercised about this?

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Bill – It would not have been available to them. There were a handful in the Admission Office who were 99% sure that it was Jess, but we never passed any information along.

I agree that whatever the context, Butler will only come out looking bad in this fight. People love underdogs, and a single student vs an entire university just looks awful. I don’t go to Butler, but I have a number of close friends who did, and their stories and problems with Butler administrations had already given me a pretty poor opinion of the people running the school. This case just cements that opinion against them.

[...] This post continues a series dealing specifically with the legal issues that bloggers should be thinking about.  Part 4, Anonymity, is especially timely, as Indianapolis-based Butler University has recently initiated a lawsuit against an anonymous blogger for making allegedly libelous and defamatory statements about school administrators on his blog, The True BU. The story is covered in detail at Inside Higher Ed. For a nice timeline of the buildup to the Butler lawsuit, see Brad Ward’s post over at SquaredPeg. [...]

Maybe school administrations need to realize that handling personnel matters via email is NOT effective and NOT necessarily confidential. I’ve seen far worse criticisms published in student newspapers. Emails go public all the time. It’s not a confidential medium.

Doesn’t Butler have to prove that the student knew what he was saying wasn’t true to win a libel suit? How do you prove damages from a blog?

This is a really good post and something I never thought about, but I do recall a few eatery charges on my credit card that seemed to be much higher than I recalled spending. Well I think I will make an effort to bring enuf cash for tipping from now on if possible!

Butler is trying to control the story. This is going to be fun to watch…

Thanks for making such a valuable blog, sincerely Kobos Mathers.

Gucci Shoes

Thanks for making such a valuable blog, sincerely Kobos Mathers.

Nice post. Thank you and waiting for another one.

If you are still interested in this story, see my essay about it in the Journal of Academic Freedom:

http://www.academicfreedomjournal.org/VolumeTwo/Watts.pdf

Bill Watts

Write a comment