November 10, 2005
Of blogs, comments, lawsuits and professional propriety
In a nutshell: Bitch Ph.D. writes a post that is highly critical of Samuel Alito; a commenter named Paul Deignan, who is a pro-life engineering graduate student at Purdue, begins disputing Bitch Ph.D. and her fellow commenters; political sparring of an increasingly nasty bent ensues; Deignan is banned from Bitch Ph.D.'s site, and she deletes a number of his comments; Deignan then claims he was libelled by Bitch Ph.D., who says she banned him for threatening her and that he used "IP spoofing" to mask his IP address after the ban. Along the way, Northern Iowa University historian Wallace Hettle posts this comment announcing that he has reported Deignan's "unprofessional" behavior to his dissertation advisors:
Troll boy is a student of the highly relevant field of mechanical engineering.
The moron is trolling under his real name from a home page which lists the names of his advisors. So I emailed them, as this behavior is thoroughly unprofessional.
BTW, I have a PhD and actual tenure. And I happen to know many profs who work from home, like myself.
I've read some of Dr. B's scholarship and it is superb.
Maybe Paul can come back after finishing HIS dissertation--if he finishes.
Anyway, Paul, I'm going to make an acquaintance with the admin. of your engineering school tomorrow, but I'm logging off for tonight.
Meanwhile, word of the building cyber-melee spreads across the internet as Deignan begins using his own blog to discuss his plans for exposing Bitch Ph.D.'s true identity and suing both her and Hettle (just keep scrolling). Bitch Ph.D. has now hired her own lawyer, and the ugly legal games have begun.
InsideHigherEd.com has attempted to unravel the details of this increasingly convoluted and confusing story. Deignan has a response on his own site, correcting errors of fact and adding more commentary of his own. Bitch Ph.D. has her own follow-up post on what she describes as a "teeny-tiny shit storm" here.
I'd love to know readers' thoughts on this. No one seems to have acted particularly well here--Hettle's behavior strikes me as absurdly intrusive and as an example of the very sort of unprofessionalism he feels he has sniffed out in Deignan; Bitch Ph.D. has every right to ban whoever she wants from her site, but she played into Deignan's apparently eagerly waiting hands when she began levelling undocumented accusations at him online; Deignan has chosen to handle an already ugly situation by escalating it into an expensive and, for Bitch Ph.D., professionally threatening legal wrangle. What interests me is whether there really is any legal substance to Deignan's case, and, if so, what it is.
Comments are most welcome.
Its all fun and games until you threaten someone's livelihood, as Wallace thinks it is appropriate to do.
I think, and I'm speaking as a lawyer here, that all the parties need more in the way of maturity and less in the way of litigation.
I essentially agree with your points (and particularly with RP's first point). Two comments, though:
1) The Inside Higher Ed writer (at what isn't exactly a pro-life hotbed) seems to have seen the deleted Deignan comments and to have not found them at all inflammatory. (Which doesn't, of course, excuse his escalation.)
2) Deignan's advisor seems good-natured about this, but I'd still quibble with the idea that it's any of Purdue's business what some grad student posts in blog comments. He'd be within his rights to ask that his own name not be connected with any of Deignan's flamewars, though.
Highly intelligent teenagers with tenure indeed.
Add to that a couple with potty mouths.
With this and the AfterSchoolSnack kerfluffle, it's not a good week to view models of solid professional conduct.
I think Hettle needs to get a life. What a busybody. The whole thing was just your basic blog-war until he crossed the line.
I am amazed at Professor Hettle's involvement. And, I am always surprised by finding out something going on a few buildings away from me here at ole Purdue.
I tend to agree with RP's comment about proportion. But the thing that amazes me is Purdue's response. What on earth does Purdue think it's doing here? Are these two quotes accurate?
"Yes, we received an e-mail,” King confirmed on Wednesday. “It said that Paul was exceeding his bounds, if you will, on what is essentially a private site. He’s been asked to refrain, at least until he’s [graduated from Purdue].”
King, one of Deignan’s advisers, had perhaps the most unique take on the situation in today’s Web-based society: “I don’t understand what blogs are,” he said. “Apparently, though, they can get you in trouble.”
If he doesn't know what blogs are, how in the world can he assess the degree to which a blog is a "private site?" (A standard blog IMO is a private site in the sense that the owner has a right to control access; it is certainly not a private site in the sense of being intended for a closed set of users, like, say, the General Motors supplier web site.)
And what does he think gives him the authority to ask Paul to "refrain?" And what's that about "at least until he's graduated?" Does he even imagine that he would have some control over a student *after* graduation?
Hettle and Deignan have both crossed lines of inappropriateness, and I suspect any lawsuit would be tossed out quickly. By posting in a public forum, Deignan made himself into a public figure (I think the legal term is limited-purpose public figure, but I'm not a lawyer), and I suspect he'd have a much harder time proving libel with the added requirement to prove negligence or maliciousness. Fortunately for our society, there's usually a difference between what's unwise and what's illegal.
Having said that, I'm not sure that the purpose of a lawsuit is always to win the case. Sometimes it's just to make other people spend lots of money.
If he doesn't know what blogs are, how in the world can he assess the degree to which a blog is a "private site?"...And what does he think gives him the authority to ask Paul to "refrain?"
I understood what he said as "Paul was carrying on in a context outside his university capacity. It wouldn't be any of our business, but as long as Purdue's name and my name are associated with his postings to the point that someone is dragging me into it, I've asked him to chill out a bit."
> whether there really is any legal substance to Deignan's case
No, there isn't. He is going to have to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find a lawyer, and if he does, his case is going nowhere. Judges don't have time for this crap.
Bitch Ph.D. may have acted in manner that isn't entirely honest or open to debate, but that is her right. Deignan was wrong to escalate the matter with a lawsuit. Far and above the worst offender is Hettle, whose ethics I consider more questionable than Deignan's for attempting what is, in my opinion, a sabotage of the man's career.
Academics are remarkably thin skinned when it comes to web-based oontroversy. A member of the Ward Churchill misconduct review committee quit earlier this week after sending several e-mails to Pirateballerina.com making veiled threats to sue for PB's printing comments the member made about Churchill that in PB's opinion were laudatory. My understanding is that invective on the web gets a great deal of legal leeway. The lawyers involved should be telling everyone to cool it.
You seem to be missing the point.
Noting to BPhD that she will need to be named in the suit (by name) is the same warning of consequence that I gave to Wally.
Both ignore this warning--that's on them. I can only give them fair notice since they act too irresponsibly themselves for me to be confident that they will figure it out themselves.
Ask yourself this,"Why haven't the obviously harmful and false statements been retracted yet as demanded?"
Don't have an answer? Neither do I. If you think this is a good question, then as long as you make improper references to ther situation, why not ask her to resolve it.
If this is a train wreck, you play a role in driving the train. I have done what I could but I will defend my reputation against libel come what may. you would want the same for yourself.
I haven't really tried directly addressing anyone involved in this yet, but I'll gingerly step out here on one significant point. Many people, quite a few of them legally knowledgeable, have suggested to you that your understanding of "obviously harmful and false" is at the least not likely to coincide with the standards of libel law. That doesn't seem to make much of an impression.
Let me try a different point of approach on a related issue. Your expressed concern in much of this is for harm to your reputation. I want you to think about that for a moment. Try to step back from it. What is reputation? It's not a tangible, fixed object like a tree or a rock. It's a social artifact, composed of information that propagates through social networks. It can accumulate over time slowly, or be formed abruptly. New information can shift reputation in new ways, sometimes just among isolated social networks, sometimes propagating through many, many hubs. Well-established reputations can be hard to shift; reputations which have very little information in them can be easy to shift in dramatic fashion.
Before this dispute, virtually none of the people who are now aware of your blog and you yourself knew of either. Your reputation was established by your academic work within your own field and to a very much lesser extent, to readers of your blog. (The extent to which your blog had little to do with your reputation in your own scholarly field is evinced by the fact that your advisors didn't even know you had one.) If you'd kept publishing through your blog, it's probable that eventually a wider audience of people interested in information theory, networks, complexity and so on might have found it and read material on those topics with interest, enhancing your scholarly reputation in small but significant ways.
To continue the counterfactual, if you had come into conflict with Bitch Ph.D and objected on your own blog to her characterization of your activity in her comments, something rather like, "It's a serious mischaracterization to use the word 'spoofing' here, and it really concerns me: she may not understand it, but that reads to me like an accusation that I'm a hacker, which I find gravely offensive", even if nothing else had come from that, you would have enhanced your reputation in some small degree. You would have made a legitimate point, and left someone else to be graceful. If Wallace Hettle had written to your advisors, and you'd publicized that in your blog, but done nothing more, I guarantee you that today all the conversation would be about Wallace Hettle, and all the negative reputation effects would cohere to him.
But for someone professing such grave concern for his reputation that you're willing to go to the time and expense of engaging in litigation (and even you, with your apparent legal certitude, must know that the actual outcomes of even the most certain case cannot be known in advance, and that any litigation is painful, expensive and time-consuming), for someone so concerned, you don't seem very concerned. The mule-headedness you're displaying, and what many of us view as a dangerous misuse of the standard of libel to compel what is effectively a point of etiquette, is establishing a negative reputation with a great many audiences far more devastatingly than even the most expansive libellous impact of the statements which are driving your crusade.
You cannot use the law to compel people to regard you in a particular way, or accord you a particular reputation. Reputation is won and lost in how others think of you, interpret your actions, remember your character. If you value reputation as much as you profess, now is the time to find a graceful exit from the corner you are backing yourself into. You can still recoup considerable sympathy, particularly in terms of Professor Hettle's behavior, but only if you rethink what you're doing.
I've been sort of following this for a while, but haven't blogged on it. One thing I've noticed is that Deignan really needs to get a life. He obviously must be obsessively checking his Technorati profile and Sitemeter referrals to see who's linking to him and mentioning him, because he's commented in damned near every blog I've come across that's mentioned this controversy.
I was half tempted to blog about this as an experiment to see how long it would take him to show up at my own blog. My outside guess was less than a day. I bet that, now, even though I've tipped my hand, if I were to comment on this, Deignan still wouldn't be able to risk commenting. That just seems to be the sort of person he is.
In any case, I agree that Hettle crossed the line. He was clearly trying to intimidate Deignan into silence, which was reprehensible. I would point out however, that, even in my semianonymity, I've had at least one occasional clown try to intimidate me by e-mailing my Chairman and Division Chief (both of whom laughed him off). Chances are, unless his advisors are complete jackasses, all it would have taken is a little private explanation on Deignan's part to diffuse the whole situation.
Instead Deignan turned a blog pissing match into this embarrassing trainwreck of a public display, in which, with each successive post, he makes himself look more and more the fool. He turned a molehill into a mountain by his overblown, whiny, and immature reaction. It's hard to believe he's a 40-year-old. I guess it just goes to show that age doesn't guarantee maturity.
Regarding Hettle, it's worth pointing out that of the accusations that have been formally made against Ward Churchill -- those thrown out and those retained -- none involve the AAUP canon covering civil discourse! I'm aware of only one use of that canon, the Kirstein case at St. Xavier. The Purdue advisers should simply have told Hettle to stuff it.
Oops. That's "still wouldn't be able to resist" commenting.
Some very reasonable comments and a pleasure to read as well. I hope they don't go unheeded.
There is an individual using the e-mail: email@example.com
that has sent a threatening letter to my wife at work. Please search your records for this individual immediately.
I am concerned that he/she may pose a threat.
I'm somewhat familiar with what gets a case tossed out by a judge, I've zeroed 29 so far this year, though in a usual year I zero 12-14 cases.
I've defended slander and libel cases (and trade libel for that matter).
I'd not jump to the same conclusions some here jump to. I will leave it at that, though it is very possible that by calling someone's advisors at Purdue, Hettle could find himself defending a suit in whatever county Perdue finds itself. One where the factual issues could well get the case to a jury.
BTW, since when has anyone used IP spoofing to *find* an IP address of a poster? I know I'm not that tehcnically astute, perhaps I've missed something in the description or discussion. Seems like there are much easier ways to do the job.
I think, and I'm speaking as a lawyer here, that all the parties need more in the way of maturity and less in the way of litigation.
The truest statement in the entire thread.