Posted by Brad J. Ward | Posted in Blogging, Community, Ethics, Higher Education, Management, Thoughts | Posted on 10-16-2009
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).
- 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.
- This student had previously applied to be a Butler Blogger, and I had several email correspondences with him regarding it.
- 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 (email@example.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.
- 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?
- 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.
- It’s amazing to see the power of a blog in action, and watch one student take up an issue and go with it.
- 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?
- 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!!