Butler University v. John Doe: A New Challenge to Academic Freedom and Shared Governance

By William Watts

What are the circumstances that would lead a university to act against its own self-interest, and negate its most basic values, including its commitment to academic freedom? This is perhaps the most urgent question posed by the libel lawsuit Butler University v. John Doe.

The trend for universities to rely more and more heavily on legal processes to regulate their affairs and conduct their business has been widely observed and well documented. In her book The Trials of Academe: The New Era of Campus Litigation (2009), Amy Gajda writes that “the growing recourse to the courts by academics, and the increasing willingness of judges to accept the invitation and resolve campus disputes, pose a substantial threat to [the] heart of academic self-governance.” Even in the context of this trend, however, the Butler case stands out, and raises the question of how far universities are willing to go in legalizing their campuses. 

The lawsuit against John Doe, filed in Marion County Superior Court in Indianapolis in January 2009, accuses the anonymous blogger of the site TrueBU of publishing “libelous and defamatory statements . . . which have harmed the honesty, integrity, and professional reputation of Butler University and two of its high-level administrators,” the provost and the dean of its College of Fine Arts. When the lawsuit was made public, many months later, it became clear the John Doe named in the suit was a Butler University student, then in his junior year. 

The legal action taken by the university was deeply problematic in two fundamental ways. First, it is the basic mission of a university to help students, not to sue them. Butler prides itself on being student-centered and on helping students to realize their highest aspirations. It is hard to see how a libel lawsuit against a student furthers that mission. 

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