Professor Bill Watts: Email Monitoring and the TrueBU

During my short time at Butler, Professor Bill Watts of the English Department has repeatedly shown himself to be a dedicated advocate for faculty and students. He has written numerous articles for The Butler Collegian addressing campus injustice and has provided guidance to many in need.

Below you'll find a piece composed by Professor Watts addressing the administration's recent intrusion into a student's personal email account and the subsequent closing of the former TrueBU.

- Caleb

Jess Zimmerman’s Email and the Closing of TrueBU
Bill Watts
We should all be concerned about the intrusion into Jess Zimmerman’s private Butler email account, as reported by the Butler Collegian on Feb. 25, 2009. While this intrusion may be legally defensible, it is not justifiable in moral or academic terms. I believe that its purpose was to intimidate and to inhibit the free exchange of ideas.

In their carefully modulated statements to the Collegian, Scott Kincaid, Chief Information Officer, Levester Johnson, Vice President for Student Affairs, and President Bobby Fong have left the impression that Jess Zimmerman’s private email was read because he was suspected of sending out threatening messages. This explanation does not stand up to scrutiny.

To begin with, I have seen the two email messages in question, and I can say that it is impossible to construe the one and it is a stretch to construe the other as threatening. Both messages were written in the aftermath of Andrea Gullickson’s dismissal as head of the School of Music.
(Both emails can be found below this article in their entirety.)
The message sent by Soodo Nym to Provost Jamie Comstock and JCFA Dean Peter Alexander is dismissive of their abilities and it is snarky, but it is not threatening. The harshest sentence in the message, sent on Christmas day, says to Alexander and Comstock: “I hope your new year's resolution is to begin to represent Butler University in a positive fashion and with integrity--something both of you have demonstrated, repeatedly, that you lack.”

The second message was sent by someone writing under the name of “Butler Brigade,” and it is both shorter and blunter than Soodo Nym’s missive: “You’re entering dangerous territory. You can mess with our faculty but you will not intimidate our students. Be fully aware that we can create much more trouble for you than we have so far.” The message is signed “The Students of Butler University.”

To my mind, there is nothing in this note that threatens physical harm. To say that someone is entering “dangerous territory,” it seems to me, is to say that they are making unwise decisions, and that they should alter their course of action. Butler Brigade’s message is impolite and uncivil, and I do not approve of such anonymous messages, in which the speaker masks his or her identity with a pseudonym. But it is hard for me to see the message as threatening.

Even if we do stretch our imagination in order to find some kind of veiled threat in the message from Butler Brigade, this still does not justify rifling through Jess Zimmerman’s email account. Neither the message from Soodo Nym nor the “dangerous territory” message from Butler Brigade was sent from a Butler account; the former came from a Gmail account, and the latter from Hotmail. If Butler administrators wanted to track down these messages, they had better and more legitimate means to do so than intruding on an email account that had nothing to do with these messages.

A few years ago, an anonymous emailer sent out a message mocking Michelle Mannering, who was then a professor in the history department. In response to this message, the Butler Police went to extraordinary lengths to check the IP address of the message, and to track down the sender. The Butler Police could have done the same with the “dangerous ground” message, and they could also have subpoenaed the email service provider to learn the identity of Butler Brigade. This would have been the legitimate way to deal with the message.

In understanding why Butler administrators chose instead to breach Jess Zimmerman’s email account, we have to look to two other factors: his relationship to the TrueBU blog and his relationship to Michael Zimmerman, his father and dean of the LAS, and Andrea Gullickson, his step-mother, and the former head of the School of Music.

In my several conversations with him, Jess Zimmerman has always been coy about his relationship to TrueBU, the blog that was critical of the Butler administration. I do not know whether Jess Zimmerman was just an acquaintance of the creators of TrueBU, or whether he was a principal creator himself, but I do know that he was involved with the blog in some way.

At the same time that Vice President Levester Johnson and Dean Sally Click presented Jess Zimmerman with email messages from his private account, Butler University officials were making a concerted effort to close down TrueBU. I believe that Michael Blickman, Butler’s ever-present, behind-the-scenes legal muscle from the Ice Miller law firm, was central to this effort.

Here, I must rely upon indirect evidence and a bit of conjecture to reconstruct the sequence of steps taken to close down TrueBU. If any Butler official wishes to contradict or correct my reconstruction of events, I would be grateful for the correction. But here is what I believe happened:

1. A high Butler official—perhaps President Fong himself---and Michael Blickman made a request to Scott Kincaid to open up Jess Zimmerman’s email account on the dubious grounds that he was involved in sending out threatening email messages;

2. Michael Blickman sent a message to Soodo Nym threatening legal action on the questionable grounds that TrueBU was distributing material that was either defaming or harassing Butler officials;

3. Dean Michael Zimmerman was presented with evidence, probably taken from Jess Zimmerman’s email, indicating that his son was associated with TrueBu. Dean Zimmerman was pressured to tell his son to close down the blog.

In this way, then, Butler officials were able to move behind the scenes to close down TrueBU while giving themselves room to state publicly that their real concern was with email threats that did not, in any case, come from Jess Zimmerman’s email account. And, of course, their efforts succeeded; the blog was closed down.

The opening of Jess Zimmerman’s email was not simply a violation of his privacy; it undermined one of the principles of the University, which should be dedicated to the free and unfettered exchange of ideas.

One of the most beautiful and compelling statements of that principle is to be found in John Milton’s seventeenth-century treatise, Areopagitica. In making his argument that Parliament should not regulate the free expression of ideas, Milton writes:

And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?

Because Truth would triumph in any free exchange with Falsehood, Milton reasoned, artificial means of censoring utterances could only hinder the discovery of what is true.

Not content to allow Truth and Falsehood to confront one another, our administrators sought, by intruding on Jess Zimmerman’s email and by employing other strong-arm tactics, to close down a blog expressing ideas with which they disagreed.

We are all diminished by their actions.
Email 1
Sent from Soodo Nym on Dec. 25, 2009 from a Gmail account:

Drs Alexander and Comstock,

I wanted to write to wish you a very merry Christmas and a good new year.

Though I've spent this last week, and will spend the next week, off of campus sipping eggnog and opening/giving presents, I haven't forgotten the abuses of power and poor leadership you showed last semester. I know you wanted me (and all students) to forget over the holiday, but I assure you that I have not. Oh well.

Anyway, I hope your new year's resolution is to begin to represent Butler University in a positive fashion and with integrity--something both of you have demonstrated, repeatedly, that you lack.

As I've told people both online and in person, my goal is to tell the true stories of Butler University. I hope you give me something positive about which to write next semester: If you ever have any professional or personal achievements (Or, Dr. Alexander, if you ever even have a biography that someone feels is important enough to publish on ANY website) I would love to report them because it will make Butler look better.

Best to you and yours this holiday,

Soodo Nym
Butler Blogger: The True BU
Email 2
Sent from Butler Brigade, late December 2008, to Jamie Comstock and possibly other administrators from a Hotmail account:

You’re entering dangerous territory. You can mess with our faculty but you will not intimidate our students. Be fully aware that we can create much more trouble for you than we have so far.

The Students of Butler University

1 comment:

  1. maybe the first email should've been dated 12-25-2008, not 12-25-2009?