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Butler files online speech suit: Indiana school sues student for blog

One of Bradley’s neighbors recently became the first university to file a lawsuit against online speech.

When Butler University junior Jess Zimmerman began his blog, TrueBU Blog, in October 2008, he posted that it “is not a forum of attack, it is a forum for truth.”

The blog said he planned to discuss student government, Butler sports, greek life and campus life – and began the blog by doing just that, anonymously via the name Soodo Nym.

The blog didn’t attract much attention at first. But things set fire in December, when Zimmerman began chronicling what he said was an unfair dismissal of the chair of Butler’s School of Music Andrea Gullickson, who is also Zimmerman’s stepmother.

In his posts, Zimmerman said the university dean is “power hungry and afraid of his own shadow … drives away talented administrators … frustrates students … hurts the ability of the school to recruit talented students and faculty members.”

Butler, which is located in Indianapolis, sued Soodo Nym in January with the allegations that he made libelous and defamatory statements that “have harmed the honesty, integrity and professional reputation of the university and two of its high-level administrators.”

Issues of the case became public this October when a Butler professor published an article in the student newspaper and sent an e-mail to faculty Senate which provoked a response from Butler’s president.

When the university first sued Soodo Nym, it said it did not know who was behind the pseudonym. However, in a phone interview with the Scout this week, Zimmerman said he thinks they knew it was him.

“I don’t believe they didn’t know it was me until June because they called my dad into the president’s office on New Year’s Eve and told him that it was me, and he didn’t believe it because he didn’t know,” he said.

“They called me in on Jan. 2, when the university was closed, and showed me e-mails they had gotten when going through my Butler e-mail account.”

In June, Zimmerman’s father was removed as the Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the university.

“He found out that the provost was making defamatory and disparaging comments about him and got his attorney involved for retraction,” Zimmerman said. “Instead of dealing with the issue, they threatened him by signing a confidentiality agreement. They used me as a pawn to try to get both of us to be quiet.”

It was at this point Zimmerman’s parents realized he was behind the blog, he said.

Zimmerman said he was against Butler’s attempt to settle with him and his father because he “certainly wasn’t about to say you can expel me and I won’t talk about it or appeal it.”

The American Civil Liberties Union took on Zimmerman’s case. However, the university dropped charges against Zimmerman when the case became public and there was national outcry, as several newspapers featured negatively opinionated columns and editorials about the issue.

However, Butler is now dealing with Zimmerman in its campus judicial system. He goes to trial within the university next week, but he said the university is trying to establish a verdict before the trial.

“The president of the school and the public relations department are sending out memos saying I threatened, intimidated and harassed the reputation of the administration and the school,” Zimmerman said. “I completely disagree with that. What he’s trying to do is convict me before my trial.”

Zimmerman said he rejects statements the blog was used only to protect his stepmother, as he started it before her issue with the university began. He also said he has no regrets, but warns that it could happen to other students.

“I think adding to a university dialogue is a good thing,” he said. “I think being positive that what you’re writing isn’t libelous is not an absolute prevention of being sued for libel.”

According to www.medialaw.org, public figures are required to prove actual malice to claim libel, which means the author knew his or her statements were false and were said recklessly.

“I said these people, who I believe are public figures, aren’t doing a good job,” Zimmerman said. “I certainly didn’t mean to hurt people’s feelings or make them afraid, but I was making what I thought was a fair and well-documented opinion.”

Zimmerman is still a student at Butler, where he says “most students I’ve talked to are on my side.”

One of the university’s lawyers, Michael Blickman, told Inside Higher Education that Zimmerman should be punished as if he wrote the comments in a newspaper or verbalized them in a town square.

“Some people mistakenly believe the Internet is the Wild West where no rules apply,” he said. “You can’t hope to find shelter from the Internet when you engage in serial harassment and defamation.”

Zimmerman also began the “I Am John Doe” blog to chronicle his case against Butler.

Several people affiliated with Butler have also posted on that blog, expressing frustrations with the university in other areas.

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