School Tries To Sanction Unmasked Student Blogger

Digital rights advocates often implore judges to cast a skeptical eye on requests to unmask anonymous bloggers for purposes of filing a libel lawsuit.

The danger, they warn, is that the person making the request has no intention of actually suing for libel, but will retaliate in some other way once they learn the blogger's identity. That's especially likely if the allegations don't actually support a libel claim. In that situation, there's no reason for a litigant to follow through with a hopeless defamation lawsuit once he/she has obtained critics' names and can devise other ways of getting back at them.

That appears to be precisely what happened recently in Indiana, where Butler University filed a libel lawsuit against an anonymous student blogger, learned his identity, and then sought to withdraw the case in favor of bringing him up on disciplinary charges.

The blog, authored by Butler junior Jess Zimmerman, was live from October through December of last year. Zimmerman used the platform to criticize school officials for a decision to oust the school's music director. The student reserved some particularly choice words for university dean Peter Alexander, allegedly writing that he "is power-hungry and afraid of his own shadow," "drives away talented administrators," "frustrates students within the departments," and "hurts the ability of the school to recruit talented students and faculty members," according to the lawsuit.

Another post allegedly said, "Shady. Very Shady," about Alexander.

Yet another post allegedly said, "Dean Alexander has misused his authority, is paranoid, and is unequivocally a poor leader of an otherwise promising collecge within Butler University ... He says one thing and does another."

Unflattering, perhaps. But defamatory? Libel requires assertions of fact, not just opinion or rhetoric.

Nonetheless, the school filed suit in January, discovered Zimmerman's name in June, and then attempted to convince him to agree to some sort of internal sanction. He refused -- the school said in a statement that Zimmerman "maintained that no sanctions were warranted" -- prompting the school to file a disciplinary proceeding against him last week. This Monday, the university sought to withdraw its libel complaint.

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