BU student’s blog attracts lawsuit

Douglas McIntyre Nov 9, 2009

In October 2008, Jess Zimmerman, a junior political science major at Butler University in Indiana, started his True BU blog discussing Greek life and the student government, among other groups.

When Zimmerman began criticizing Jamie Comstock — provost and vice president for academic affairs at Butler — and Peter Alexander — the dean of the university’s Jordan College of Fine Arts (JCFA) — the administration took notice.

In January, the university filed a lawsuit against “John Doe” — since Zimmerman was authoring the blog under the pen name Soodo Nym — for “harm[ing] the honesty, integrity, and professional reputation of Butler University and two of its high-level administrators,” according to the summons issued by the Marion Circuit Court.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), this is the first time that a university has sued a student over online speech. Zimmerman said the suit was dismissed in court on Oct. 27 of this year, but he still faces disciplinary charges from Butler University, which could affect his expected early graduation this May.

According to a statement issued by the Butler University administration, True BU “published communications that included defamation, threats, harassment, and intimidation.”

A Dec. 15 post on True BU reported that Alexander fired Andrea Gullickson as chair of the School of Music. Not only did it speak of Gullickson’s merits and accomplishments, it also suggested that Alexander was not an appropriate dean for the JCFA.

Zimmerman, as Soodo Nym, reported that a Google search he performed of Alexander’s name did not result in information on the individual serving as JFCA dean within the first 50 results.

“While it’s not relevant to this article,” he wrote, “I do have to question the University for hiring someone as dean who, it appears, is not particularly accomplished.”

Gullickson is Zimmerman’s stepmother. According to Michael Zimmerman, Jess Zimmerman’s father and the former dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler, Alexander told Gullickson in December 2008 that she was doing a poor job — despite apparent disagreement from music department faculty — which led to Gullickson resigning the post.

According to Jess Zimmerman, Comstock then called a meeting with Gullickson and denied her resignation, and instead Comstock “threatened to fire her” from her tenured position at the university.

The details of this issue were on the blog, along with several letters reportedly from faculty criticizing the actions of the administration. The notes were posted anonymously, speaking highly in favor of Gullickson’s tenure as chair and negatively about Alexander’s and Comstock’s decisions.

On Jan. 4, Jess Zimmerman ended the blog. On Jan. 8, the university filed the lawsuit against Soodo Nym.

Michael Zimmerman said that after the lawsuit was filed, he was called in for a meeting with the provost. She told him that she did not want him to continue as dean, but that instead she would take him on as vice provost. He said she told him, “Either we would concoct a story showing we work well together or she would spread bad things about me.”

He decided to move back into a faculty position. Michael Zimmerman said the university’s board of visitors wanted to know why he had been removed and were reportedly told that she had told them a number of negative things he had done that he said were not true.

In response, he sought a lawyer, who sent a letter to the university requesting a retraction or clarification of her statements. The university agreed, if both Michael and Jess Zimmerman would sign a confidentiality agreement stating they would not discuss this issue nor that of Soodo Nym. They agreed, contingent that the university would not pursue a change in the suit to identify Jess Zimmerman as Soodo Nym.
No further information regarding the conclusion of the case was available at press time.

This story has been reported in a number of student newspapers, as well as Inside Higher Ed at insidehighered.com/news/2009/10/16/butler.