[Marxism] St. Lawrence University sues to identify leftwing blog critics

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri May 13 08:30:10 MDT 2005

May 13
Cloaked in Cyberspace

St. Lawrence University is trying to force disclosure of the names of 
bloggers behind a site they say ridicules and harasses students and faculty 

The blog Take Back Our Campus!, which says it is “dedicated to fighting the 
right-wing assault” on the university, posts often raging criticisms of 
administrative policy and of students in conservative groups, and other 
faculty members and students they consider conservative.

The university filed a lawsuit in federal court in January alleging that 
the blog unlawfully used, and altered, copyrighted photographs. One picture 
of President Daniel Sullivan, gleaned from the university’s Web site, was 
spruced up with a bottle of gin and two bare-breasted women. The pictures 
have been removed, but the conflict continues.

What St. Lawrence really wants is the identity of the bloggers, who are 
called “John Doe"s in the suit. There are eight site contributors, but only 
the picture posters are “named” -– using their pseudonyms -– in the suit. 
They call themselves “Christian Evangelist” and “collars down.” On May 6, 
the college asked the court to force Time Warner Cable, whose service was 
used to post to the site, to hand over information that would identify the 
site’s authors.

St. Lawrence administrators said they are less concerned by the criticism 
of themselves than by the anonymous attacks on individuals, especially 
students. One posting that really bothered them, according to 
administrators, was a tally of how many times a student mentioned on the 
blog had been seen crying in public, presumably due to its content. Another 
post included a faculty member’s match.com profile and pictures (one in 
shirt and tie, one shirtless) highlighting the fact that the professor said 
he was not interested in dating black or Asian people.

“It’s absolutely very cowardly,” said Macreena Doyle, a university 
spokeswoman, who pointed out that St. Lawrence administrators have been 
criticized before but chosen not to fight back. “I can see the need to 
protect whistle-blowers, but to just take shots at students, and not have 
the guts to ID yourself, I don’t see a defense for that. If these were 
posters attacking students on campus, we would take action.”

Doyle said that the bloggers care only about their own anonymity and that 
of their allies. In one apparent spoof article about a dean’s al-Qaeda 
ties, “promisebreaker” writes: “When questioned, a spokesperson from the 
Deans [sic] Office, who requested to remain anonymous (Kathryn McCaffrey, 
director of the office of Co-Curricular Education and Programs), denied 
these accusations."

In January, St. Lawrence blocked access to Take Back Our Campus from 
computers on the campus network. But the blog used tactics like sending 
content via e-email. And, naturally, the bloggers  documented what they saw 
as their fight for free speech under snappy, cyber-revolutionary headlines: 
“Book Burning Enters the Digital Age.”

Many of the site’s posts, of which St. Lawrence has not disputed the 
veracity, are based on apparently leaked documents.

In one case, the blog appears to have obtained an internal memo that is 
excerpted in a criticism of the university’s decision to cut Upward Bound, 
a tutoring program for low-income students. In another instance, the site 
published internal memos that it says challenge Sullivan’s public 
statements on why Take Back Our Campus should be blocked.

Some faculty members want the blog’s anonymity protected. “Whistle-blowing 
is an important public function, and you can’t have that without anonymous 
speech,” said a philosophy professor, Rob Loftis. “I’m not impressed with 
their content so far. This isn’t the Pentagon Papers,” he added of the many 
administrative documents posted on the site. “But if there was something 
big out there,” he said, “having gadfly groups like this, they might find it.”

But other employees think the blog stifles free speech rather than promote 
it. “The activity on the site had a chilling effect,” Doyle said. “Some 
faculty are now reluctant to have their own images published on official 
Web sites. They don’t want to put it up to have it ridiculed.”

Margaret Bass, an associate dean who had her picture posted, is over it. 
“Some of my students felt attacked, and I didn’t like that. But there are 
many organizations I find objectionable, but don’t need to know who they 
are or shut them down,” she said. Still, Bass added, she does not see the 
need for anonymity. “If I held a position with strong convictions, I would 
speak publicly. I can’t imagine anyone here ever being disciplined for 
that.”  She added that the “cloak of anonymity” seems to be protection for 
the caustic personal attacks more than policy criticism.

Attempts to reach some of the bloggers via e-mail were unsuccessful by 
publication time.

When ordered by the court, Google Inc. turned over IP addresses from which 
comments to the blog were posted posted. According to Take Back Our Campus 
— placed right under  a cartoon of a crying woman — the college has already 
spent at least $15,000 on the lawsuit. So far there is no indication if 
Time Warner Cable will turn over information for those addresses.

One thing is certain: Every step of the process will be blogged about.

— David Epstein



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