Coeducational versus single-sex education is controversial. College administration is controversial, in an extremely tedious and petty way. The economics of running a college is more controversial the more you know about it.
Americans are a contentious people. We like to argue about controversial things.
Many of us see this as a good thing. We see it as part of our cultural heritage, our hard-earned exceptionalism, our competitive advantage.
Unfortunately, too many of us — even those of us in industries ostensibly devoted to open inquiry, like higher education — see it as a bug, not a feature. Too many of us react to criticism through abuse — actual or threatened — of America's deeply flawed legal system.
It is the job of everyone who loves freedom of expression to identify these people, call them out, and condemn and ridicule them.
Peace College is embroiled in controversy. Its leadership plans to change it from women-only to coeducational, and some of its students, alums, and others criticize its administration's policies. Eventually, an activist group called Preserve Peace College sent a letter with 40 signatories criticizing Peace College's administration and their plans for the institution.
Peace College, an institution of higher learning, reacted by convening a public meeting to address the concerns set forth in the letter. In addition, Peace College issued a letter with a measured point-by-point rebuttal of the Preserve Peace College letter.
No, wait. Actually, though Peace College may or may not have gotten around to doing those things, Peace College's primary response was far less open to criticism. Rather, as the FIRE documents, Peace College arranged for its attorney, Ms. Biggs Arrowood, to send a threatening letter to the signatories of the critical letter. FIRE hosts the Preserve Peace College letter here, and the threat letter here.
The threat letter may be assessed based upon its salient features.
First, the letter conspicuously and utterly fails to specify exactly what statements in the letter are false. As I have argued before, ambiguity in a defamation threat letter is the vanguard of bullshit thuggery. Could the Preserve Peace College letter include some false statements of fact? Perhaps. But the Biggs Arrowood threat letter gives no hint of which statements in the Preserve Peace College letter are false. Even though the Preserve Peace College letter contains both statements of fact and clear statements of pure opinion — which are absolutely privileged under the First Amendment — the threat letter makes no effort whatsoever to distinguish between allegedly objectionable statements of fact and disagreed-with statements of opinion. There are only a few reasons to draft a threat letter this way: (a) because you can only make arguments about a very few factual points in a challenged letter, (b) because your argument that facts in a challenged letter are false is weak, or (c) because your intent is to use ambiguity as a weapon — to chill and deter any discussion of the subject by your opponents whatsoever. If the letter is intended to stop critics from making specific false statements, its drafting is breathtakingly incompetent. If its aim is to chill any discussion that Peace College's administration dislikes, it is adequate, if (for the reasons discussed below) foolish.
Second, while the letter implies that Peace College and Ms. Biggs Arrowood will take legal action if anyone continues to make the statements in the Preserve Peace College letter, it does not explicitly say what that action will be, or what its legal basis will be. The letter screams "defamation" without saying it. Note the sentence '[t]he letter reflects an intent to deliberately and improperly interfere with the University's relationships with its various constituencies." That sounds like a ham-fisted reference to the tort of interference with business relationships. It would be entertaining to hear Peace College and Ms. Biggs Arrowood try to reconcile their interpretation of that tort with applicable First Amendment authorities. Once again: ambiguity is a signifier of bullshit and low-rent thuggery. Would-be censors with poor legal arguments often deliberately fail to articulate them.
Third, the letter reflects extreme recklessness on somebody's part. Competent administrators and competent lawyers are familiar with the Streisand Effect. The Streisand Effect dictates that any threat like Peace College's threat letter will naturally and probably result in the challenged speech — in this case, the Preserve Peace College letter — being seen by more people. By orders of magnitude more people. This is especiallly true when the person or entity making the threat is a university, or someone else ostensibly devoted to free inquiry. FIRE's article resulted in many, many more people seeing Preserve Peace College's claims and complaints. Other defenders of free expression will now pick the story up — predictably — and it will go even further. Any competent professional should have predicted this. Sending the letter — and especially sending it in the thuggishly vague format discussed above — has the natural and probable consequence of spreading Preserve Peace College's criticisms, giving them credibility, and making Peace College's administration look defensive, censorious, unprofessional, and unreliable. Oh, well done. I'm curious: did Ms. Biggs Arrowood know this, and so advise her client?
So: why write about such things? Because:
1. FIRE is awesome, and we ought to support their mission and message.
2. Censorious thugs — particularly censorious thugs in positions that ought to be devoted to free expression — should be identified, called out, and opposed.
3. As I have argued before, lawyers who indulge their clients' inclinations towards censorious thuggery should be called out as well.
By the way, I sent Ms. Biggs Arrowood an email soliciting her comment last Friday. I never heard from her. I will post my email to her in the comments.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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