There is a free speech controversy swirling around an ethics complaint in Illinois brought by University of Denver law professor Nancy Leong. Leong runs a blog site called Feminist Law Professors and recently discovered the identity of an anonymous commenter who has, according to Leong, left racist and sexist comments. She says that he is a a public defender in his late 40s and she wants him punished for his comments. We have discussed the free speech rights of public employees in an earlier column and blog postings, including the right to speak on blogs and Internet sites. The actions of Leong are troubling for those of us who believe strongly in free speech values, including the right to anonymity.
The poster used “dybbuk” in posts that referenced Leong. In one post, he talks about a
28-year-old law grad and wrote “I think she has the right age, gender, credentials, and eager-to-please attitude for an ‘odd job’ I have in mind . . . Basically it involves the girl dressing up as a law professor, bending over, and trying to ask me questions about International Shoe while I spank her with a wet slipper.” He also criticized Leong, including her presentation in Hawaii on “racial capitalism,” stating “Now that is what I call a gravy train or, shall I say, a luau train. Law professors enjoying a free Hawaii vacation at some seaside hotel. All they have to do is attend some ‘annual meeting’ of some ‘society’ where they pretend to listen to Leong yap about ‘pragmatic approach[es] of reactive commodification,’ while undressing her with their eyes.”
Prof. Nancy Leong
Leong found dozens of references about her on five different websites as part of her investigation, including disparaging her scholarship and describing her as “a comely young narcissist” and a “law professor hottie.” She also said that other professors that he criticized on these various sites were overwhelmingly directed at women and professors of color. She considers anonymous postings with sexist elements to be unethical. She writes in the complaint that “There are over 6,000 tenured and tenure-track law professors in the United States have less practice experience than I do. Most of them have weaker publishing records than I do. Most of them have weaker teaching evaluations than I do. Almost all of them have been members of the legal academy longer than I have. Almost all of them have more power and prominence than I do. In light of these facts, it is difficult to think of a reasonable explanation for [dybbuk's] obsessive attention to an untenured professor.”Prof. Turley doesn't believe Prof. Leong's complaints rise to the level of a disciplinary matter. He is too kind though in his criticism of Leong. She obviously spent considerable time researching the time and identity of the anonymous poster. She probably used university resources in the process as well. The worst thing though is her utter disdain for the First Amendment by attempting to silence a critic, albeit an anonymous one, by using very general rules in the Rules of Professional Conduct to go after her critic. My guess is she saw the, thus far, success of Prof. Michael Mann, who came up with the now discredited hockey stick graph to explain his theory about global warming, in suing his critics who publicly disparaged his work.
Turley's column details Leong's tracking down her critic and trying to confront him. It was only when dybbuk refused to talk to her about his comments that she filed the disciplinary grievance. If he committed a disciplinary violation wouldn't it have been a violation regardless he agreed to engage in a verbal exchange with her over the anonymous commentary? This reminds me of judges who demand apologies from attorneys then not getting one file a disciplinary grievance against the attorney, a fact I know all too well. How does an apology wipe away a disciplinary violation? The fact that an accuser wouldn't file a grievance if he got an apology is evidence that the disciplinary process is being used to settle scores, not enforce the rules.
Prof. Turley continues:
It clearly did not work and Leong proceeded to file a formal complaint. That is where I have to respectfully disagree with Professor Leong. The effort to punish this poster threatens free speech and creates a chilling message for those who wish to engage in discussions on an anonymous basis. I know that that is not her purpose but she is attempting to discipline a person for criticizing her and engaging in language that she finds offensive. That is anathema for most civil libertarians even though most of us find these writings to be offensive and insulting. As academics, we owe a special duty to free speech and the need to preserve protected spaces for such speech on campus and the Internet. This is precisely why it was so alarming to see Jewish students recently seek to strip anonymity for posters of material that they find objectionable. Free speech comes at a cost, particularly for those who become public figures. The Internet is rife with hateful and false statements. However, it is also the single greatest advance in free speech in history. I am confident that the work of Professor Leong will be remembered long after dybbuk has passed into well-deserved obscurity. However, this should not be part of that legacy.