Syracuse University Thinks Satire Is Actionable Harassment
Some people can't abide being ridiculed. For that matter, some people can't abide being the subject of even the mildest satire. Their frail little psyches cannot stand it.
Apparently Syracuse University attracts such people, and academics sympathetic to them.
FIRE has been savaging Syracuse all month over its investigation of, and threatened administrative proceedings against, law student Len Audaer for the offense of writing a satirical blog at www.wordpress.sucolitis blog (now defunct) about the doings and inhabitants of the Syracuse University College of Law.
As FIRE repeatedly concedes, Syracuse is a private institution and not a state actor. It is therefore not bound by the First Amendment, and its administrators may therefore persecute students for foolish reasons using Star Chamber procedures to their dark autocratic little hearts' content, except to the extent federal or state statutes limit them. But Syracuse claims to protect and celebrate freedom of expression. They aggressively market themselves as respecting freedom of expression. Americans expect universities, public and private, to protect freedom of expression. When universities do not, they deserve to be regarded with suspicion and contempt — they deserve to be regarded as something different, something less, than a real university.
I'm not going to discuss what Audaer did, and what Syracuse did in response, in great detail. FIRE has offered a wealth of information. In brief, Audaer wrote satirical posts about fellow law students and members of the faculty and administration, as well as public figures. The satire is broad, obvious, and, to be frank, not particularly good. But only an abject idiot could mistake it for anything but satire. Some of it is skillful. Some of it is funny. Some of it is crass, mean, and sophomoric, like a post allegedly identifying a particular first year law student as being "especially slutty." [Ed.: Note December 22 update below about this issue.]
Somebody complained. Syracuse decided to appoint a "prosecutor" to investigate the blog and determine whether to bring formal charges against Audaer under the Syracuse discipline system. All of that — the fact that someone complained about satire, and that the school didn't immediately reject the complaint — is appalling enough.
But Syracuse, and specially appointed prosecutor Syracuse law professor Gregory Germain, are angry about the criticism and are doubling down. As is often the case, the attempted cover-up is worse than the initial conduct.
Professor Germain has filed a motion with the Syracuse disciplinary body demanding a gag order against Audaer and his defense team. He wants Syracuse to issue an order forbidding Audaer from disclosing the contents of his own blog, or anything he gets from the university about the proceedings against him, to any third party unless the third parties agree in writing (1) not to disclose the names of any of the people identified in those blog posts or documents without their consent, and (2) to publish the entirety of documents, not just quotes from them, "in order to prevent misleading selective posting of information."
In other words, Professor Germain thinks that Audaer should be prohibited from sending FIRE, or me, or the Chronicle of Higher Education, or CNN, an unredacted copy of this blog post without the written permission of Ellen DeGeneres. Professor Germain also thinks that Audaer should be prohibited from sending FIRE, or me, or anyone else one of his own blog posts, or any document from the proceedings against him, unless we agree to Professor Germain's preferred method of writing about it. Professor Germain explicitly demands censorship of documents as a method of getting the type of media coverage of the proceedings that he wants. Of course, no respectable reporter — and no self-respecting blogger, or American — would agree to present materials only in the manner that a censor demanded. Moreover, given an internet in which it is trivially easy for Syracuse and its supporters to host and publish the raw documents themselves, the demand for written guarantees of full publication as a method of achieving "fair" coverage is transparently dishonest and/or stupid. The gag order is deliberately calculated to prevent Audaer from distributing his blog posts and the documentation of his persecution at all.
The demand for anonymity of the "victims" of the alleged misconduct is particularly perverse because the "misconduct" is satire. Professor Germain is investigating the possibility that the satirical blog posts are "harassment" — currently a fashionable term in academic circles meaning pretty much whatever the academics want it to mean. But it's impossible to understand or evaluate satire without knowing its target. Hustler v. Falwell is the seminal case about satire, establishing that Jerry Falwell could not recover even if Hustler's satirical depiction of him having sex with his mother in an outhouse really hurt his feelings. You couldn't possibly evaluate Hustler's joke correctly without knowing whom it depicted, because, like most satire, it revolves around the identity of its subject — in this case, the joke is the satirical contrast between Falwell the public first-stone-thrower and eager moral scold and Falwell the incestuous outhouse abuser. The satire falls flat if it's written about anonymous Person X. Here, by demanding redaction of the satire, Professor Germain makes it impossible to evaluate its meaning — which is, no doubt, part of his goal.
Professor Germain defends his censorious ambitions very unconvincingly, at considerable length, and in a rather unbecomingly whiny fashion in a series of emails:
I don't like the way you use language such as "people like Professor Germain." What does "people like Professor Germain" mean? I'm bad and you're good?
The fact is, you don't know me or anything about me.
Gosh, Professor Germain, I think FIRE is referring to the class of persons generally known as censorious thugs with grave control issues who are overly proud of their petty authority. Your emails also demonstrate that they may be referring to people who can't abide criticism. It's only appropriate to appoint such a person to investigate a student for the crime of making fun of people. I suspect FIRE thinks all of that, but is too polite to say so. They're an awfully well-mannered bunch over there, really.
In his motion for a gag order, Professor Germain suggests that Audaer must be gagged so that his accusers need not fear that more people will know that somebody made fun of them on the internet:
The students, faculty and staff who were targeted in the sucolitis blog did not consent to have their good names used in the blog, and do not wish to be the subject of attacks on the internet. One of the students has expressed to the Prosecutor a concern for her physical safety. Most wish to find jobs in the legal profession, and feel that bringing further public attention through the publication of their names could damage their
employment opportunities, and would cause further humiliation and embarrassment.
Leave aside, for the moment, the ignorant and authoritarian proposition that people have some sort of right not to have their names used on the internet, and not to be "attacked" on the internet. Focus on this instead: Professor German suggests that the people satirized in the blog fear that having that satire spread further as a result of their own complaints about it would be unfair, because potential employers might see it and their feelings might be further hurt.
I interview, and hire, people at a law firm. I cannot imagine a situation in which I would decline to hire someone because they had been the target of satire. That's because I'm not a fucking idiot. Perhaps the subjects of Audaer's blog aspire to be hired by fucking idiots. It sure looks like they are going to the right school, then.
Syracuse's excuse for a disciplinary system apparently protects the anonymity of accusers, and supports efforts to prevent the publication of their identity. That's common with systems that have, as their true aim, the uncritical acceptance of accusations and the swift arrival at a predetermined conclusion of guilt. See, if you allow the identity of an accuser to become public, then all sorts of inconvenient things happen. They might suffer consequences for making false accusations. People might read about the case and come out of the woodwork and say "Vance Victim couldn't have been assaulted by the defendant on Saturday night; I saw him passed out over at Delta house that night," or "Vance Victim is the same guy who threatened to accuse me of assault twice last year", or "Vance Victim is a person with a reputation for being a liar and a cad." In short, That's why protection of accuser anonymity is repellent and inimical to modern systems of justice.
But Professor Germain does have the kernel of a point about privacy. It's just not the point he thinks he has. It's irrational to think that employers will be put off because a humor blog satirized you. However, it's entirely rational to fear that, if employers find out that you ran to the administration to complain about being satirized, they might not want to hire you. I would happily hire people of every color, religion, and sexual preference. I would hire Republicans and Democrats and Independents and Greens. But I would never, in a million years, hire someone who complained to his or her school administration about being the subject of satire. People who run to the authorities to complain about being the subject of satire are weaklings, crybabies, losers, and nasty censorious authoritarians. I view them as likely to be of sub-optimal intelligence, insufficient fortitude, and poor morals. Those are not the qualities of a reliable employee or a good lawyer. They are not people I want to hire or be friends with. They are people I want to ridicule and shun.
What should these students made fun of in the blog — including in the crass and mean portions — have done instead, if they felt ill-treated? They should have resorted to the marketplace of ideas. They should have created their own blog identifying Audaer as the blogger and mocking some of his shittier writing. They should have called him out in public or given him the cut direct. They should have shunned him from their social circles and study groups. They should have made certain, through Google, that every time someone looked him up, they would see that he was someone who thought referring to a particular 1L as "especially slutty" was funny satire. If they had done that, rather than retreating behind the skirts of petty authority, I would have respected them. Remember, supporting freedom of expression does not mean you have to agree with or support the content of the expression or the people who utter it. Many of them are assholes.
Update on December 22, 2010: An informed source tells me that (1) the links in this post to the pdfs of the blog represent all of the articles the blog ever ran (so you don't have to find them, those links are here and here), and (2) as a review of those blog posts show, Audaer never wrote that anyone was "especially slutty"; that's apparently a mistake by the student quoted in one of the linked articles. That changes my view somewhat. If the posts linked (in redacted form) by FIRE represent all the posts Audaer ever wrote, then it's even clearer that they are all satirical, and there's nothing in them close to referring to someone as "especially slutty." They're still not to my taste, and I suppose that one or two could even be characterized as mean. But you'd have to be pretty damned thin-skinned to get in a huff over them. Syracuse's investigation becomes even more appalling, and Professor Germain's belief that these posts might plausibly represent harassment becomes even more transparently bogus.
In addition, it appears that Mr. Audaer has a web site discussing Syracuse's proceedings against him, here. That site also has copies of the redacted posts and links to other commentary on the case.
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