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Butler University student lawsuit raises questions on First Amendment

by Nick Zanetti,
  • An Elon student writes on the free speech board on First Amendment Day, which took place earlier this fall. The boards were set up as a public forum to express opinion. A Butler University student’s blog recently came under scrutiny for his opinion and he was sued by his school. File photo

Butler University student Jess Zimmerman was recently sued by his school for comments he made in an anonymous online blog that Butler administrators claim are defamatory and libelous.

The blog, "TruBU," is penned by Zimmerman under the pseudonym "Psoodo Nym." Besides coming up with clever aliases, Zimmerman's hobbies listed on the blog include "honesty," "truth" and "success."

"This blog is to be neither an accusation nor a confession," Zimmerman said in the blog's introduction. "It will simply try to tell the true, anonymous stories of Butler University. It's the truth. It's good. It's bad. It's real."

It was not Zimmerman's passion for justice and truth that got him into trouble, but rather the statements made on the blog concerning Butler's dismissal of Andrea Gullickson, the chair of Butler's school of music, that put him under scrutiny.

Gullickson is also Zimmerman's stepmother.

The comments on the blog were specifically directed toward Peter Alexander, the dean of the College of Fine Arts at Butler.

Zimmerman wrote that Alexander "lied" in a meeting with the school of music regarding the departure of Gullickson. Zimmerman also suggested that Alexander and Butler Provost Jamie

Comstock were engaged in a conspiracy to misrepresent the circumstances of Gullickson's departure.

The story brings larger issues into question: Is it legal to sue someone over an anonymous online blog? Can opinions like those written in "TruBU" be considered libelous or defamatory?

"Libel is libel regardless of the media it is written in," said George Padgett, a professor of media law and ethics at Elon. "People tend to have an attitude that 'everything goes' online, but you are still responsible for what you write, regardless of media."

While Zimmerman's comments were opinion, these things are seen differently through the eyes of the law, Padgett said.

"Defamatory opinions are protected under libel, (but) statements of fact are not. Padgett said "calling somebody a liar is considered a statement of fact."

Padgett said Elon students need to be aware of what they write online. Libel law applies to all media, even anonymous Internet blogs.

Elon has its own policies regarding libel and defamatory statements made against its faculty and if a situation similar to the one at Butler were to occur at Elon, there are certain actions that might result.

"The first thing we would do is see if there was any honor code violation," said Jodean Schmiederer, Elon's dean of judicial affairs. "We would have to look at what specifically was said and make a judgment from there."

Schmiederer also pointed out that Elon values a student's right to speak, and she said she hopes there is never a case involving something serious enough to warrant legal action.

She also said she "doubts Elon would jump to a lawsuit," and would most likely talk to the student about the comments first.

"The honor code is not in place so that Elon has a policy regarding situations like these," Schmiederer said. "The honor code exists because we truly want Elon graduates to be the epitome of honesty, integrity, responsibility and respect."