All We Are Asking Is That You Give Peace A Chance. Also, Shut Up Or Else.

Law

Coeducational versus single-sex education is controversial. College administration is controversial, in an extremely tedious and petty way. The economics of running a college is more controversial the more you know about it.

Americans are a contentious people. We like to argue about controversial things.

Many of us see this as a good thing. We see it as part of our cultural heritage, our hard-earned exceptionalism, our competitive advantage.

Unfortunately, too many of us — even those of us in industries ostensibly devoted to open inquiry, like higher education — see it as a bug, not a feature. Too many of us react to criticism through abuse — actual or threatened — of America's deeply flawed legal system.

It is the job of everyone who loves freedom of expression to identify these people, call them out, and condemn and ridicule them.

Let's start today with Peace College of North Carolina and their lawyer, Catharine Biggs Arrowood of the firm Parker Poe.

Peace College is embroiled in controversy. Its leadership plans to change it from women-only to coeducational, and some of its students, alums, and others criticize its administration's policies. Eventually, an activist group called Preserve Peace College sent a letter with 40 signatories criticizing Peace College's administration and their plans for the institution.

Peace College, an institution of higher learning, reacted by convening a public meeting to address the concerns set forth in the letter. In addition, Peace College issued a letter with a measured point-by-point rebuttal of the Preserve Peace College letter.

No, wait. Actually, though Peace College may or may not have gotten around to doing those things, Peace College's primary response was far less open to criticism. Rather, as the FIRE documents, Peace College arranged for its attorney, Ms. Biggs Arrowood, to send a threatening letter to the signatories of the critical letter. FIRE hosts the Preserve Peace College letter here, and the threat letter here.

The threat letter may be assessed based upon its salient features.

First, the letter conspicuously and utterly fails to specify exactly what statements in the letter are false. As I have argued before, ambiguity in a defamation threat letter is the vanguard of bullshit thuggery. Could the Preserve Peace College letter include some false statements of fact? Perhaps. But the Biggs Arrowood threat letter gives no hint of which statements in the Preserve Peace College letter are false. Even though the Preserve Peace College letter contains both statements of fact and clear statements of pure opinion — which are absolutely privileged under the First Amendment — the threat letter makes no effort whatsoever to distinguish between allegedly objectionable statements of fact and disagreed-with statements of opinion. There are only a few reasons to draft a threat letter this way: (a) because you can only make arguments about a very few factual points in a challenged letter, (b) because your argument that facts in a challenged letter are false is weak, or (c) because your intent is to use ambiguity as a weapon — to chill and deter any discussion of the subject by your opponents whatsoever. If the letter is intended to stop critics from making specific false statements, its drafting is breathtakingly incompetent. If its aim is to chill any discussion that Peace College's administration dislikes, it is adequate, if (for the reasons discussed below) foolish.

Second, while the letter implies that Peace College and Ms. Biggs Arrowood will take legal action if anyone continues to make the statements in the Preserve Peace College letter, it does not explicitly say what that action will be, or what its legal basis will be. The letter screams "defamation" without saying it. Note the sentence '[t]he letter reflects an intent to deliberately and improperly interfere with the University's relationships with its various constituencies." That sounds like a ham-fisted reference to the tort of interference with business relationships. It would be entertaining to hear Peace College and Ms. Biggs Arrowood try to reconcile their interpretation of that tort with applicable First Amendment authorities. Once again: ambiguity is a signifier of bullshit and low-rent thuggery. Would-be censors with poor legal arguments often deliberately fail to articulate them.

Third, the letter reflects extreme recklessness on somebody's part. Competent administrators and competent lawyers are familiar with the Streisand Effect. The Streisand Effect dictates that any threat like Peace College's threat letter will naturally and probably result in the challenged speech — in this case, the Preserve Peace College letter — being seen by more people. By orders of magnitude more people. This is especiallly true when the person or entity making the threat is a university, or someone else ostensibly devoted to free inquiry. FIRE's article resulted in many, many more people seeing Preserve Peace College's claims and complaints. Other defenders of free expression will now pick the story up — predictably — and it will go even further. Any competent professional should have predicted this. Sending the letter — and especially sending it in the thuggishly vague format discussed above — has the natural and probable consequence of spreading Preserve Peace College's criticisms, giving them credibility, and making Peace College's administration look defensive, censorious, unprofessional, and unreliable. Oh, well done. I'm curious: did Ms. Biggs Arrowood know this, and so advise her client?

So: why write about such things? Because:

1. FIRE is awesome, and we ought to support their mission and message.
2. Censorious thugs — particularly censorious thugs in positions that ought to be devoted to free expression — should be identified, called out, and opposed.
3. As I have argued before, lawyers who indulge their clients' inclinations towards censorious thuggery should be called out as well.

By the way, I sent Ms. Biggs Arrowood an email soliciting her comment last Friday. I never heard from her. I will post my email to her in the comments.

Last 5 posts by Ken White

34 Comments

32 Comments

  1. Ken  •  Mar 6, 2012 @12:28 pm

    Dear Ms. Biggs Arrowood:

    I write for Popehat.com, a small blog that covers issues including freedom of expression and threats thereto. One of our favored topics is the nature, ethics, and consequences of threatening letters calculated to chill speech.

    Today I noticed that the free-speech-advocacy group FIRE featured a story about your threatening letter to critics of Peace College: http://thefire.org/article/14257.html

    I have determined to write about the matter, as I have about other similar threats.

    I write now to solicit your comment about the matter.

    Specifically:

    1. Why did your letter not specify what specific statements in the critical letter were (allegedly) false? Is it your position — and Peace College's position — that any criticism of the administration of Peace College is objectionable? If, in fact, your implicit threat was in good faith, why did you fail to specify any particular allegedly false statement?

    2. Was your letter intended to coney a threat of legal action, perhaps for defamation? If so, why did you not say so explicitly?

    3. Your letter complains of an "intent to deliberately and improperly interfere with the University's relationships with its various constituencies." Would you care to articulate the legal basis on which it would be wrongful, under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, for critics to criticize the schools' administration, even if the critics' intent were to interfere with the school's constituencies?

    4. Would you like to comment on whether you are familiar with the Streisand Effect? When you sent this letter on behalf of your client, did you first inform your client that the natural and probable effect of your threats was that the number of people reading the allegedly objectionable letter would increase by between one and five orders of magnitude? If you were not aware of that, or did not inform your clients of that, do you believe your actions reflected the level of competence required of attorneys under applicable ethical laws of your state?

    5. Do you have any other comment about FIRE's story that you would like to make on your own behalf or on behalf of your client, Peace College?

    Thank you.

  2. TJIC  •  Mar 6, 2012 @12:29 pm

    > FIRE is awesome.

    Indeed.

    I'd put them in my will for half of my net worth, but I don't think they really want that much debt.

  3. PLW  •  Mar 6, 2012 @12:44 pm

    Ms. Arrowood is a member of the Panel of Neutrals for the American Arbitration Association and the International Centre for Dispute Resolution and regularly serves as an arbitrator.

    Is it ad hominem to suggest that she should play Dolores Umbridge in the stage adaptation of Harry Potter?

  4. Wilhelm Arcturus  •  Mar 6, 2012 @12:56 pm

    I wonder if this is one of the tactics put forth in "Leading with Care," the book in which Ms. Biggs Arrowood is featured?

    Her experience, as listed on her page, does not seem to be heavy on first amendment related issues. On the other hand, she does claim to "She resolves problems that threaten your business." She just does not say how.

  5. C. S. P. Schofield  •  Mar 6, 2012 @1:08 pm

    First off, any college that is going coed for reasons other than financial survival is doing its heritage a disservice. My father was a Princeton alumni. When Princeton went coed, he started making his annual contributions to my mother's college, Smith, which had not. There are good coed schools out there. Lots of them. Single sex education is rarer. It should be preserved, if only for variety.

    That said, half of the "college administration catches some criticism, college admin goes postal" problem (and it's common enough) is that the colleges are the natural habitat of the Western Intellectual Elitists. They seriously think of themselves are smarter, a position that might be defensible, and better educated ON ALL SUBJECTS than the general run of troglodytes. They see their mission in life as being to bring the education of the children of the Trogs up to some sort of minimum standard. They try very hard to produce generation after generation of students who all hold the same (liberal/progressive) opinions. They look down on anybody who isn't an academic, and many who are (hard sciences, in particular, where opinions must be backed by data). And when the Trogs DARE to criticise they tend to have hissy catfits.

    Lots of fun to watch, usually. They are bad debaters, since they tend to use the Argument From Authority even when they have better ammunition. They also tend to believe, right up until the boom gets lowered, that Moral Superiority trumps actual Law.

    Let's hope this lot get a nice public reaming.

  6. Sharon Brown  •  Mar 6, 2012 @1:35 pm

    Thank you for your post on this issue. I am one of the 40 signatories on the Preserve Peace College letter. C.S.P. Schofield which commented above – WOW! What you have written so eloquently describes the "types" we find ourselves up against.

  7. EH  •  Mar 6, 2012 @2:20 pm

    It should be preserved, if only for variety.

    History tells us this will never be the case.

  8. C. S. P. Schofield  •  Mar 6, 2012 @2:42 pm

    EH,

    Historically, all kinds of odd institutions of Higher Learning have hung on for centuries. We can but hope.

    Sharon Brown,

    My thanks! My father was a Professor, so I lived a fair amount of my life amongst these people. They were scared of Father, though.

  9. mojo  •  Mar 6, 2012 @2:57 pm

    You'd think they'd learn, wouldn't you?

  10. Sheila Spencer Stover  •  Mar 6, 2012 @4:00 pm

    Thank you for the concise manner in which you presented and over viewed the problems, secrecy, run a way train actions of the Peace College/William Peace University administration, board and legal staff. Alumnae, supporters, students, parents have, in the past year and a half, made every attempt to learn, understand, get answers, to the questions hundreds of hours of research, documentation have brought to the surface. As a signatory of the referenced letter, mother of 3 Peace graduates, an educator in my own baliwick– watching an academic tsunami and meltdown take place within the walls of Peace College has been disheartening, disturbing.

  11. jb  •  Mar 6, 2012 @5:49 pm

    "2. Was your letter intended to coney a threat of legal action, perhaps for defamation? If so, why did you not say so explicitly?"

    When you coney a threat, you cause your legal troubles to breed like rabbits?

  12. Ken  •  Mar 6, 2012 @6:21 pm

    I decided it would be dishonest to repair typos in the repeat here.

  13. Scott Jacobs  •  Mar 6, 2012 @7:01 pm

    When you coney a threat, you cause your legal troubles to breed like rabbits?

    Yes, and very quickly…

    Before Ze Germans get there.

  14. Elizabeth Bashore  •  Mar 6, 2012 @7:33 pm

    Wonderful article! Thank you for calling them out. "Bullshit thuggery" – well, that pretty much sums it up.

  15. Amy  •  Mar 6, 2012 @7:48 pm

    I too am one of the 40 signatories on the Preserve Peace College letter. The Peace I knew and loved taught women how to be courageous, independent thinkers. The only thing I’ve seen WPU demonstrate is threats to alumni, as well as current students.
    When the new changes by WPU were protested last summer, current students were threatened not to join the protest. Some feared they would be kicked out of school, others didn't want to risk losing scholarships. Legally, WPU could not punish them for exercising their right to protest outside the gates. Also, let’s not forget that the first day of protest, the internet was down on campus. Coincidence? I think not.
    Anyway, we thank you for bringing this to the attention of the public. We need support from the media and the community. They think they can intimidate, but they should never underestimate.

  16. Craig Mazin  •  Mar 6, 2012 @7:54 pm

    Ken:

    Great article as always. Thank God FIRE is out there exposing this idiocy.

    I did want to mention one thing to CSP Schofield… I met my wife while we both attended Princeton. I, for one, am super duper happy it went coed back in 1969. My kids are even happier.

  17. Amy  •  Mar 6, 2012 @8:23 pm

    The true issue isn’t about the school becoming co-ed. Honestly, the 'leaders' of this school have no idea what they’re doing.
    @Ken: When Princeton became co-ed, the school, as a whole, was preserved, right? This is not the case here. Peace has been completely transformed into something almost unrecognizable. Many of the elite faculty and staff were fired or forced them into early retirement (this is a separate law suit). The school has also dissolved many significant majors, severed ties with the Presbyterian Church, and alumni do not feel welcome on campus.

  18. Karen  •  Mar 6, 2012 @8:26 pm

    Thanks for the coverage of this issue. There is a great travesty happening at this venerable institution that we need people to pay attention to. Put a corporate raider on your Board of trustees and this what you get.

  19. C. S. P. Schofield  •  Mar 6, 2012 @8:42 pm

    Amy,

    My father, who was an old reactionary who by choice lived his life in the 18th century (on which he was an expert regarding History of Science and Technology), maintained that Princeton was morphing into a second-rate University of Michigan. You have to remember, though, that his Princeton was circa WWII, and ALL Universities and Colleges were drastically changed by the influx of students after WWII.

    The fact remains, though, that the Western Intellectual Elitists who gradually took over much of our institutions of Higher Education starting in the 1950's are not, by and large, actual scholars. And what my father loved about Princeton (and academia in general) was the scholarship. He was a scholar by avocation and had scant patience for ideological preachers in tenured positions … especially those that felt that the world owed them a soft life, seldom did actual scholarship, and even more rarely published. He was well aware that his kind of scholarship was a luxury good, was somewhat puzzled that society saw fit to pay for it, and tried his damndest to give value for money by writing several books, and mentoring other scholars. He loved students who would argue with him, too.

    Anyway; going cooed necessarily changed Princeton. Happening at a different time, it certainly didn't change the same way that a school going cooed now would change.

  20. Paula Ward  •  Mar 7, 2012 @2:27 am

    I deeply appreciate your comments on the controversy at Peace College. My daughter applied to 17 colleges, was accepted to all, but chose Peace for its heritage, traditions, and reputation. She absolutely loved her first year. But, by the middle of her third semester, she hated it. All the things she loved have been taken away. Majors have been disolved or merged into something that doesn't quite make sense. Beloved professors have been dismissed. Parents and alumni are not welcome on campus. While the administration has repeatedly said the change is not for financial reasons, they have yet to clearly specify the reason for the change. Now, to top off the absolute insanity of it all, they are offering summer school classes, but NOT housing for out of state students. Excuse me? Where are these students supposed to live–in the dumpster? And lastly, what is up with the horrible lime-green parking tickets stuck to windshields that WON'T come off?

  21. Jim  •  Mar 7, 2012 @6:28 am

    I was not one of the individuals who signed the letter identified in your blog and the one posted by the Fire. Had I been aware of efforts to prepare such a letter, I would have submitted a request to add to and have my signature affixed to the letter.

    As the parent of a Peace College graduate and one who has worked with and supported the College under its previous three Presidents, I have carefully followed the events that have taken place during the last two years at Peace College (now William Peace University ). Over the years, I have served on several Boards and Councils affiliated with the School, have established a scholarship and provided financial support for a number of capital campaigns at the School, and have long served as an advocate recommending to my friends and acquaintances with high school age daughters that they consider Peace College as their choice for higher education. That is no longer the case.

    I have witnessed the truth of what has been documented in the referenced letter, the postings here and at the Fire regarding the recent changes and handling of changes at WPU by the current Administration and Board of Trustees. My advice to students and parents considering William Peace University today is that they search diligently for reliable information (which probably means going beyond that which is readily available from the School) regarding what is currently taking place at WPU and consider what a degree from this school will be worth (assuming the School remains viable and a degree is obtained). For those considering significant donations and/or the establishment of endowments, at any school but especially at WPU, similar diligence should also be given to the provisions and wording of any “Understandings of Endowment” entered into with the school.
    School Administrators change and not always for the best or with a moral obligation to honor the agreements and understanding that preceded them if they can find a loop-hole to exploit.

  22. Ken  •  Mar 7, 2012 @9:11 am

    We've gotten a whole lot of visits to this post from North Carolina, many originating from links in emails.

  23. Thomas Downing  •  Mar 7, 2012 @9:55 am

    Wow.

    Also, a strong indicator of rational argument: frequent citations, which I note are present in the letter from the preservation group.

  24. Susan  •  Mar 7, 2012 @11:22 am

    Ken,

    My daughter is currently a Junior at Peace. It has been a painful and difficult 18 months–especially the past 7 months–since the arrival of the new president. The most difficult issue has been having voices silenced while such drastic and curious changes have occurred. One almost feels as though one is muzzled and handcuffed…Until the FIRE article (THANK YOU Peter Bonilla!) and now your fine piece were published, I was beginning to lose hope that the truth of what is happening at William Peace University (aka Peace College) would ever be known to the greater public.
    I'm so grateful to you for writing this honest, hard-hitting post, and calling out the "censorious thugs" at WPU.

  25. Betsy  •  Mar 7, 2012 @1:49 pm

    Thanks for you thoughtful article exposing one of the tactics seemingly being employed at William Peace University to suppress constructive and well meant efforts to expose deception and violations of trust at this School since the arrival of its new President.

  26. Linus  •  Mar 7, 2012 @8:49 pm

    I don't know a thing about whether Peace should be co-ed or not, or whether the allegations made above by parents and alumni are true. So, in a way, I'm grateful for the bullshit legal threat; it's such a reliable indicator of which side knows they have the weaker position.

  27. John David Galt  •  Mar 7, 2012 @9:58 pm

    Something tells me Hillsdale will soon no longer be the only college that refuses federal money to avoid the controls that go with it. I only hope that this process can be hastened by making high school students aware of these situations in time to avoid the most censorious schools.

  28. Chris  •  Mar 9, 2012 @3:11 pm

    So Peace is a cooking/ home economics school right? Why would men want to go there anyway?

  29. Roger Smart  •  Mar 10, 2012 @1:55 am

    Ah Ken,

    A joy to read as always. Still fighting the good fight with humor, sarcasm, and a bit of righteous anger. I've got to start proselytizing to my social network about the joys of reading Popehat.

  30. Susan  •  Mar 10, 2012 @5:42 am

    Chris, you ask: "So Peace is a cooking/home economics school right?" Your question could be interpreted in a number of ways; if you ask out of sincere interest in determining the school's course offerings, one answer would be: Before the arrival of Debra Townsley, Peace College, a private baccalaureate women's college, offered 17 majors, 7 of which were cut last year in preparation of becoming a garden-variety co-ed "university." Peace has never been a home economics school or a cooking school, leaving such endeavors to the many fine, coeducational culinary arts colleges in the US. However, your question seems to ring more of sarcasm than sincerity, suggesting you to be ignorant of the validity and value of an all women's single-sex education. If you care to expand your point of view, you will find this timely article most elucidating: http://views.washingtonpost.com/leadership/panelists/2010/09/are-womens-colleges-still-needed.html

  31. Karen  •  Mar 10, 2012 @11:10 am

    Et voila: The Streisand effect! Please note that the "falsehood" that the president of Peace cited in this article (that alumnae claimed enrollment was down) was not actually in the letter.

    http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/03/10/1920351/peace-alumnae-grapple-with-this.html

  32. Scott Jacobs  •  Mar 10, 2012 @12:58 pm

    Please note that the "falsehood" that the president of Peace cited in this article (that alumnae claimed enrollment was down) was not actually in the letter.

    Would then the people who signed the letter have grounds to call her out, and demand a retraction/apology because she made a provably false statement?

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