As many of you may know, Michael Zimmerman is founder of the Clergy Letter Project, "an endeavor designed to demonstrate that religion and science can be compatible and to elevate the quality of the debate of this issue." On Wednesday, I received an e-mail from him that included a description of some recent events at his home institution, Butler University. According to Zimmerman, "Butler has now become the first university in the nation to file a lawsuit against on-line speech."
You'll find the text of Zimmerman's letter on the next page.
I'm going to write about something off topic in this item and I hope most of you will not get upset with me for doing so. Over the years The Clergy Letter Project has been in existence, I've used these updates exclusively to inform members and friends about issues only directly related to the relationship between religion and science; I am aware that this item violates that practice. Please bear with me as I talk personally about a situation that is directly affecting my family.
My son, Jess Zimmerman, is a junior at Butler University and he is under legal attack by Butler. In fact, Butler has now become the first university in the nation to file a lawsuit against on-line speech. My son's "sin?" He ran a blog that was critical of the university's administration and their actions. The case is somewhat complicated because much of what he wrote chronicled the removal of his stepmother (and my wonderful wife) as Butler's chair of the School of Music. Music faculty members were outraged by her departure and many told Jess their version of the story which he shared with his readership. Sadly, most faculty members were afraid to speak publicly for fear of retribution, so Jess felt that the burden of telling of her unfair treatment fell to him. Six months after her removal, my contract as dean was not renewed by the same provost who removed her. When that provost made disparaging remarks about me to members of the College's Board of Visitors, I had my lawyer ask for a retraction and/or an apology. Instead, I was told that unless both Jess and I signed confidentiality agreements that kept us from ever speaking about this issue and accepted unspecified punishment for Jess, they would sue Jess. I attempted to look past this outrageous tactic and negotiate a settlement that protected my young son from the power of an angry university. Ultimately, however, the university broke off negotiations, without ever even agreeing to meet face to face with us, and said they would sue Jess within the week.
This story has been chronicled in the on-line publication Inside Higher Ed (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/10/16/butler) and The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stu-kreisman/student-blogger-shut-down_b_325370.html). You can also read Jess's take on this amazing story - and view all documents associated with the case, and lots of press coverage, including a piece written by Clergy Letter Project member Matt Young on Panda's Thumb - in Jess's blog at www.akadoe.blogspot.com.
I am taking the extraordinary step of using this Clergy Letter Project newsletter to ask for your help. The interactions I've had with so many of you indicate that you care deeply about social justice issues. The university's actions against Jess, their clamping down on speech when it is not to their liking, is a social justice issue. The help I'm requesting is two-fold and simple. First, Jess's supporters have crafted a powerful letter to Butler's administration asking for the suit to be dropped and an apology issued. If you're so inclined please go to www.ipetitions.com/petition/butler and add your signature to this letter. You can also add a comment in the comment box, if you have one. (A quick word of warning, after you submit your signature and comment you are taken to a page asking for a donation. You do not need to donate anything and if you do it will not go to Jess - it goes to the web site's host.) Second, please share information about this case as widely as possible and ask others to sign the petition. It's that simple.
Finally, for those of you who are Facebook active, Jess's supporters have created a Facebook page that is being used to keep interested people informed about developments. If you want to sign up, you can do so by searching for "Friends of Jess Zimmerman" on Facebook.
Thanks for your support and understanding.