Schools Fight Back!: James Madison Charges Student Journalists, Butler Sues Student Blogger

At James Madison University, it started with a peeping tom– an alleged creep watching girls in dorm showers. It’s now ending with administrative idiocy. A student reporter with The Breeze, JMU’s campus newspaper, went to a JMU dorm recently to speak with students about a reported shower stalker. An RA became nervous and asked the reporter to leave. The Breeze EIC came by as back-up. So did the hall director. Now, as the paper and the Student Press Law Center report, the EIC and reporter are being charged with “trespassing, disorderly conduct and non-compliance with an official request.”

Shower Head Water Drops EXPLORE 7-26-09 4 by stevendepolo.

My take: Slap the shower stalker with those charges, not dedicated student journos just doing their job! It’s a dorm, not a sanctuary. And these are not scary outsiders invading students’ private space. Dear lord, they are journalist peers. This is power abuse, against the spirit (and most likely also the letter) of the law. It’s also incredibly bad PR. How can someone at JMU not realize that? SPLC attorney advocate: “It’s an action so contradictory to the ordinary meaning of the First Amendment that it’s astonishing they haven’t backed down from it yet. A mistake this obvious shouldn’t take this long to get corrected.” JMU professor: “It’s very ironic we have this situation at an institution named after James Madison, who has been labeled the father of the Constitution.”

The Butler case is more complicated, and frankly I do not know where I stand here. The *very* barebones basics, as reported with much more meaty goodness by Inside Higher Ed: Butler University is suing one of its own students for an anonymous blog he kept starting last fall that bad-mouthed various administrators to the point of what the school is calling defamation and libel. This one is tricky, however, because the student is a son/stepson of two Butler faculty members and originally started the blog (under the creative moniker “Soodo Nym”) when he became upset about some insider shenanigans allegedly affecting his stepmother’s position as chair of Butler’s School of Music.

From the snippets provided by Inside Higher Ed, no statements appear to come close to being libelous or defamatory  (although there were some random e-mails the student sent to admins. that seem a bit more troublesome). And I do think the school is overreacting and bringing unnecessary levels of attention to what is obviously a huge amount of inner turmoil on campus.  But my Balloon-Boy-cynicism starts kicking in when I read that the student’s parents claim they had no clue their son was writing a regular attack-blog against people who apparently are the parents’ sworn school enemies (or at least with whom they had a falling out).  This mess has TV-movie-of-the-week written all over it. (To the wonderfultastic Renee Petrina at Bowling Green: Send the best related editorial your students create and I’ll check it out and maybe post it!)

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