December 15, 2010

Syracuse University College of Law threatens to bring "harassment" charges against a student who blogs about law school life.

FIRE reports:
[Len] Audaer's ordeal began on October 15, 2010, when he was summoned to a meeting with SUCOL Associate Professor of Law Gregory Germain due to "extremely serious" charges. In the meeting, held on October 18, Audaer learned that the charges involved "harassment" for his alleged involvement with SUCOLitis. The anonymous, satirical blog attributed obviously fake quotes to SUCOL students, faculty, and staff. The blog included a disclaimer stating, "No actual news stories appear on the site."
So the blog names students and quotes them saying things that they did not say, and the idea is, it's satire and everyone should know that the quotes are fake. But how would you feel — in a tough job market — knowing prospective employers will Google your name and see that quote?

This is similar to a problem I have had with the blog Sadly, No!, which allows commenters to use my name and comment, pretending to be me. I complained, because I don't want my name attached to quotes that aren't mine, and the answer was that readers know it's satire.

Not all readers pick up on satire. (Remember Fox Nation picking up an Onion story about Obama and presenting it as news?) And satire usually has some element of truth in it. A real individual — especially a student who is looking for a job — has to worry about what people will think. And when readers enter a blog because they've Googled a name, they may not stay around long enough to absorb the context. If non-idiots can make a mistake about The Onion, which is a well-known and well-done satire, I would have even more anxiety about an obscure and possibly not-very-well-written satirical blog. 

The Chronicle of Higher Education has picked up the story:
SUCOLitis aspires to be something like The Onion of law-school life. The Syracuse, N.Y., satirical news blog has attracted thousands of views with fake headlines about beer pong, third-year students serving burritos, and the election of the university’s “sexiest Semite.” It delights in attributing fake quotes to students and faculty, as well as to famous alumni like Vice President Joe Biden, who is quoted as calling SUCOLitis “even funnier than me.”

Syracuse University officials aren’t laughing....

A spokeswoman for the law school, Jaclyn D. Grosso, won’t discuss details of the case. In an e-mail, she tells Wired Campus only that a faculty prosecutor has been appointed to investigate claims that a student violated the code of conduct, and to file a charge if appropriate.

She adds, “According to the faculty prosecutor, a motion has been filed with the hearing panel for a protective order to prevent public disclosure of the names of the students, faculty, and staff who were targeted in the blog, or who testify in the case, unless they consent to have their names disclosed. This was done to protect their privacy rights.”
I'd really like more information about this case, and the law school is suppressing it — apparently in order to protect the students who worry that their reputations are suffering injury. The blog is no longer public, so I can't see what kinds of fake quotes were used and how obviously satirical the writing was. Free speech is important, and I'm suspicious of charges of "harassment," but defamation is different. If you report that a person said something they didn't say, that can be seen as a lie.

Here's a hypothetical: A satirical blog aggressively goes after an individual law student, attributing all sorts of damaging quotes to him: confessions to drug use, cheating on exams, and plans to sexually harass co-workers instead of getting any work done if he gets that job at the law firm. Imagine a satirical blog, written anonymously by another student who's interviewing for the same job. You see the point.

And by the way, to be admitted to the bar, your need to pass a character review.

27 comments:

Scott M said...

I always assumed the character review was the reviewee's three best impersonations of famous movie roles. What other kind of character could a potential lawyer display (lol)?

MadisonMan said...

Well, if I were mentioned on a satirical blog, with fake quotes attributed to me, I'd include that information in any job application. Note: Fake quotes attributed to MadisonMan can be found at the satirical site CareerKiller.com.

It would be classier for the student to do something like use the name esouhtla instead of althouse (for example). Something that anyone with a brain could grasp -- which might exclude Law School Deans -- and still make the same point. But not everyone is classy.

Syracuse's Law School's response seems a little heavy-handed to me.

Bill said...

It seems to me there is a spectrum of persons here. Attributing false quotes to students is pretty clearly out of bounds. Ann Althouse? Well, she's some sort of public figure, she has a popular website and a Wikipedia entry. Chances are that someone like that is in a position to defend herself. Whatever the joke might be, it would only be funny to the people not acquainted personally with Ann Althouse know who she is, which means that for them Ann Althouse is functionally a public figure. Joe Biden? Have at it.

Syracuse probably did the right thing here. Under New York law there are limits to how far parody will serve as a defense. See, e.g., Salomone v. MacMillan77 A.D.2d 501 (1st Dep't 1980).

Crimso said...

"What other kind of character could a potential lawyer display (lol)?"

Well, there is Dohrn...

She's not licensed to practice in Illinois; but that's apparently due to her criminal record, and not because she's a psychopathic lunatic (which she evidently is, or has she been cured?). Too bad Northwestern didn't have Google when they hired her, or maybe they just didn't care. Probably the latter.

Mark O said...

It has long been the responsibility of institutions of higher learning to regulate speech. Especially speech that could be “troubling” or even-----different.

AllenS said...

How many people, and there have been commenters on this blog, think that Sarah Palin said: "I can see Russia from my backyard."

MadisonMan said...

And let me add: Shouldn't Syracuse Law give guidance to students on how to short-circuit this kind of thing? Assume that Law Students are cut-throat. How will you prevent your co-workers/co-students from be-smirching your name in a job search or in a courtroom? Googlebombing is well-known, why not teach the students how to protect their "good" name? So if althouse's final hypothetical comes true for a student, for example, what can they do to fight back? Run whining to the Law School Dean to take care of them seems to be the implicit message here, rather than taking the bull by the horns and fending for themselves.

Conclusion: Syracuse law students are wusses and the Syracuse Law faculty is overly paternalistic. Memo to the faculty: Your students are Adults. Help them learn how to fend for themselves.

Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

And what is the CEILING of character beyond which applicants are refused entry to the bar?

DADvocate said...

Attributing false quotes to students is pretty clearly out of bounds.

I agree. If you want to do a satirical site, use fictional names. Defamation does seem like a more appropriate charge.

Why to many of us blog and post anonymously? Because we don't want our actual comments and thoughts being attributed to us publicly. False quotes are even worse.

Scott M said...

Why to many of us blog and post anonymously?

Personally, I do it because I have children and don't know which among you commeratti are nutjobs.

DADvocate said...

Personally, I do it because I have children and don't know which among you commeratti are nutjobs.

One of my reasons, too. But, there are other reasons, also, including the comfort in knowing my employer or potential employers won't be have easy access to my personal views on a myriad of issues and hold them against me.

EDH said...

Actual names attached to fake quotes, bah.

Try being one of those six or so faces recycled under different names and occupations in the American Voices section of The Onion for the last several years.

rhhardin said...

Codes aren't environmentally friendly, owing to the use of trees.

They need suggestions of conduct.

rhhardin said...

Think of using your actual name as a preemployment interview for checking out employers.

You could get stuck in a company that's run like a university, otherwise.

c3 said...

I don't know professor. This may be a case of lawyers taking themselves too seriously. So if a potential junior associate to a big name firm doesn't get the position because of a satire site, what does that say about the law firm that can't tell real evidence from fake evidence.

You condemn this and praise Robin Givhan?

bagoh20 said...

Well it is law school, so the blogger is learning a valuable lesson about the law.

He's does have the defense used by professional journalists of "Fake but accurate".

Thorley Winston said...

And let me add: Shouldn't Syracuse Law give guidance to students on how to short-circuit this kind of thing? Assume that Law Students are cut-throat. How will you prevent your co-workers/co-students from be-smirching your name in a job search or in a courtroom? Googlebombing is well-known, why not teach the students how to protect their "good" name? So if althouse's final hypothetical comes true for a student, for example, what can they do to fight back? Run whining to the Law School Dean to take care of them seems to be the implicit message here, rather than taking the bull by the horns and fending for themselves.

Well if it happened in the real world, the offender would probably be reported to their State board of professional responsibility who has the authority to officially reprimand them or (in more severe cases) suspend or revoke their law license. If it happened in a court room, in addition to being reported, the judge would likely impose their own discipline on someone who misbehaved in their court room. If it happened in the workplace, they’d likely be reported to HR and/or their supervisor which could lead to their termination.

So I guess I don’t see how what the allegedly besmirched law students did in reporting the offender to the dean is that much different from what actual professionals would normally be expected to do in the real world. If anything it reinforces that – contrary to what too many students seem to believe – that there are real world consequences for your behavior even when it’s on the internet.

bagoh20 said...

"I can see Russia from my backyard."

I know Palin didn't say it, but I never understood why, even if she did, it would be so damning. The Bering straight is only 53 miles wide and so Russia IS visible from Alaska.

edutcher said...

In a case such as this, a notice that the blog is satire would seem reasonable. To assume all the cool people who might see the blog know it and that's the end of it is very disingenuous - not to mention just a tad implicitly malicious (if they can't see it's satire, screw them...).

Scott M said...

Why to many of us blog and post anonymously?

Personally, I do it because I have children and don't know which among you commeratti are nutjobs.


Thanks a ton (that was satire).

Scott M said...

No problem. My alias here is as close as I was comfortable doing to my real name, so there's that...

Uncle Jimbo said...

"
And by the way, to be admitted to the bar, your need to pass a character review. "

Bwah Ha Ha Ha!

Oh that is rich.

Cordially,

Uncle J

Russ Wood said...

Ms. Althouse wrote, "Free speech is important, and I'm suspicious of charges of "harassment," but defamation is different. If you report that a person said something they didn't say, that can be seen as a lie."

Some form of harassment might be an issue, particularly if intentional harm is done, but I do not see that defamation ever could be an issue on an explicitly satire site (e.g., "there's no news on this site"): the statements are not intended to be taken as true.

Oligonicella said...

The arrival of Google did not trump free speech.

This is just another example in a long line of academia acting to suppress student publications that they don't like. How exactly does this blog constitute harassment against SUCL?

MadisonMan said...

"there's no news on this site"

You can't expect lawyers to read disclaimers.

I mean, come On!

Holmes said...

Prior restraints.

If the damages are done, let the individual resolve it in court. The University may not summarily shut down the speech of a student because it *may* cause harm.

Synova said...

If they are making up quotes, why not make up the students as well?

Jack Wayne said...

"And by the way, to be admitted to the bar, your need to pass a character review. "

And we all know what a high bar THAT must be for potential lawyers.