A Report on October's Symposium

Room 156 of Butler University's brand new Pharmacy Building continued to fill with symposium attendees long after the published starting time of 5:30 pm. The substantial turnout serves as evidence that many people, on all sides of the recent conflict plaguing our campus, were concerned about the direction our community is taking. Perhaps more importantly, however, Tuesday's gathering suggests that our community is populated by those willing to participate in constructive discussion.

The evening began with a crash course on libel thanks to Nancy Whitmore from Butler's School of Journalism. The following section contains my notes from that segment.

  • LIBEL - how to establish? Libel law varies from state to state.
  • In Indiana - false statement of fact of a concerning individual that injures a reputation, published with actual malice, knowledge of falsity, reckless disregard for the truth
  • Libel law favors the speaker. If the university goes ahead with the suit it will be very difficult for them to prove it. We're only going to punish the most egregious form of libel...so in the meantime, it can harm people's reputations in the short run.
  • Free speech law is based on an open marketplace. Here at Butler we are trying to advance truth, knowledge, and research. We exist in a different marketplace.
Alyson Ahrns, Editor in Chief of the Butler Collegian, then spoke a bit more about libel and how it affects her work at the paper. In response to recent events, the Collegian has been receiving a number of submissions from members of the Butler community. Ahrns pointed out that each piece must be looked over with a fine toothed comb by Collegian staff members, to ensure that everything is factual because as she said, "if enough people read your statement of opinon as fact it can still be considered libel."

In addition to the words of Whitmore and Ahrns, prepared statements (varying in their levels of "of-the-cuffness", if you will) were given by Michael Vance (Pharmacy), Bill Watts (English), Stephan Laurent (Dance), Bob Dale (Psychology), and Harry van der Linden (Philosophy). Paul Hanson, from the Department of History, served as moderator for the evening's discussion.

Laurent, who is in his 22nd year here at Butler, spoke about his concern for freedom of expression, his art making him a well-suited spokesman for those who have been repressed. He said that "we're making history here," and asked of all in the room, "is this the kind of history Butler wants to make?"

A charismatic Michael Vance, who is in his 20th year at Butler University, changed the feeling of the room as he spoke with simultaneous sincerity and hilarity. Vance, who is rather absolute in his views on free speech, said that it's "like pregnancy. Either you have freedom of speech, or you don't." With that in mind, it's not altogether shocking that he was not partial to Butler's recent lawsuit (now dropped) against Jess Zimmerman, but he did feel that there was incivility in Jess's Blog.

Bill Watts, a very public supporter of Jess Zimmerman, spoke next, acting as "Butler's Dissenter in Chief," a role that he said he fell into inadvertently. He told a story of a student who e-mailed him with a collection of thoughts about the situation at hand. She wrote them, but out of fear and uncertainty about what may or may not bring down legal action on her, showed them only to Watts. (This student of his later stood up, gave her name, and stated that she was no longer afraid, and that "as students, we can count, we're not just here to learn, we're a part of the community.") In response to the question of civil discourse, Watts said "I prefer civil speech over incivil speech, but I have to tell you that when you're challenging authority, they will often hear whatever you have to say as incivil."

Bob Dale and Harry van de Linden were the last two scheduled speakers at the symposium. Dale, who said he was "way too upset to talk off-the-cuff," spoke of his mother, who taught him to seek compassion, and his father, who taught him that you can't unsay words, and said that it is our "moral obligation to show compassion to others." Harry van de Linden wrapped thing up for the scheduled speakers in saying that the issue at hand infact wasn't about the free exchange of ideas, but about the kind of speech people use to protest abuse of power.

After the speakers had concluded, the floor was opened to those present to discuss their thoughts about what had just been said and the situation as a whole. Among those who spoke were
Dr. Jamie Comstock, Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs, and Dr. Michael Zimmerman, former Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and father to Jess Zimmerman. Both Drs. Comstock and Zimmerman were rather heavily involved in the situation and seemed to be playing defense at the symposium, Comstock for the administration and Zimmerman for his son. Dr. Zimmerman said that he was "incredibly proud of what Jess did," which certainly launched debate in the room. He also questioned whether or not we should have different standards for speech on campus and off campus and for students and faculty.

Many people spoke up at the symposium and as a result varying opinions were voiced. It seemed to be a rather constructive gathering and we shall see if the dialogue between anyone interested at Butler will continue. Don't be afraid to speak your mind but if you do, watch what you say. Not because you might get in trouble but because it might not be the truth. As Bob Dale pointed, "We have the duty to speak the truth and ensure that our truth is the truth."

While this may not be a popular thing to say when writing for a counter media source, I will leave you with this:


The time is now, not just to make your voice heard but to hear the voices of others.


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