As I wrote for The Torch last Friday, Peace College in Raleigh, NC, has taken drastic action against its critics, sending a threatening letter to the signatories of a letter critical of Peace’s recent administrative decisions and asking them not-so-kindly to "desist" from circulating their "damag[ing]" criticisms.
The legal blog Popehat picked up the gauntlet on this case yesterday, publishing a hard-hitting and characteristically witty takedown of the college’s threats against the Preserve Peace College Campaign.
Popehat‘s critique makes three very good points. The first deconstructs attorney Catherine Biggs Arrowood’s failure to cite a single allegedly "false" statement in her saber-rattling letter—a very welcome addition to my earlier writing, in which I left this topic unaddressed. The third invokes the "Streisand Effect" (more on that here) and essentially asks, "what the H-E-double-hockey-sticks were you expecting would happen?" The second I’ve left out, to make sure you go to Popehat and read the whole of the excellent entry.
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.
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 especially 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.
Emphases in original.
Again, visit Popehat to read the excellent entry in full. Be sure, when you do so, to scroll down to the comments to read the text of the email the blog’s author sent to Arrowood asking for comment. We’ll provide updates at FIRE as they come.