Cloaked in Cyberspace

St. Lawrence University seeks to unmask the authors of a controversial blog.
May 13, 2005

St. Lawrence University is trying to force disclosure of the names of bloggers behind a site they say ridicules and harasses students and faculty members.

The blog Take Back Our Campus!, which says it is "dedicated to fighting the right-wing assault" on the university, posts often raging criticisms of administrative policy and of students in conservative groups, and other faculty members and students they consider conservative.

The university filed a lawsuit in federal court in January alleging that the blog unlawfully used, and altered, copyrighted photographs. One picture of President Daniel Sullivan, gleaned from the university’s Web site, was spruced up with a bottle of gin and two bare-breasted women. The pictures have been removed, but the conflict continues.

What St. Lawrence really wants is the identity of the bloggers, who are called "John Doe"s in the suit. There are eight site contributors, but only the picture posters are "named" -– using their pseudonyms -– in the suit. They call themselves "Christian Evangelist" and "collars down." On May 6, the college asked the court to force Time Warner Cable, whose service was used to post to the site, to hand over information that would identify the site’s authors.

St. Lawrence administrators said they are less concerned by the criticism of themselves than by the anonymous attacks on individuals, especially students. One posting that really bothered them, according to administrators, was a tally of how many times a student mentioned on the blog had been seen crying in public, presumably due to its content. Another post included a faculty member’s profile and pictures (one in shirt and tie, one shirtless) highlighting the fact that the professor said he was not interested in dating black or Asian people.

“It’s absolutely very cowardly,” said Macreena Doyle, a university spokeswoman, who pointed out that St. Lawrence administrators have been criticized before but chosen not to fight back. "I can see the need to protect whistle-blowers, but to just take shots at students, and not have the guts to ID yourself, I don’t see a defense for that. If these were posters attacking students on campus, we would take action.”

Doyle said that the bloggers care only about their own anonymity and that of their allies. In one apparent spoof article about a dean’s al-Qaeda ties, "promisebreaker" writes: "When questioned, a spokesperson from the Deans [sic] Office, who requested to remain anonymous (Kathryn McCaffrey, director of the office of Co-Curricular Education and Programs), denied these accusations." 

In January, St. Lawrence blocked access to Take Back Our Campus from computers on the campus network. But the blog used tactics like sending content via e-email. And, naturally, the bloggers  documented what they saw as their fight for free speech under snappy, cyber-revolutionary headlines: "Book Burning Enters the Digital Age."

Many of the site’s posts, of which St. Lawrence has not disputed the veracity, are based on apparently leaked documents.

In one case, the blog appears to have obtained an internal memo that is excerpted in a criticism of the university's decision to cut Upward Bound, a tutoring program for low-income students. In another instance, the site published internal memos that it says challenge Sullivan’s public statements on why Take Back Our Campus should be blocked.

Some faculty members want the blog’s anonymity protected. “Whistle-blowing is an important public function, and you can’t have that without anonymous speech,” said a philosophy professor, Rob Loftis. “I’m not impressed with their content so far. This isn’t the Pentagon Papers,” he added of the many administrative documents posted on the site. “But if there was something big out there," he said, "having gadfly groups like this, they might find it.”

But other employees think the blog stifles free speech rather than promote it. “The activity on the site had a chilling effect,” Doyle said. “Some faculty are now reluctant to have their own images published on official Web sites. They don’t want to put it up to have it ridiculed.”

Margaret Bass, an associate dean who had her picture posted, is over it. “Some of my students felt attacked, and I didn’t like that. But there are many organizations I find objectionable, but don’t need to know who they are or shut them down,” she said. Still, Bass added, she does not see the need for anonymity. “If I held a position with strong convictions, I would speak publicly. I can’t imagine anyone here ever being disciplined for that.”  She added that the “cloak of anonymity” seems to be protection for the caustic personal attacks more than policy criticism. 

Attempts to reach some of the bloggers via e-mail were unsuccessful by publication time.  

When ordered by the court, Google Inc. turned over IP addresses from which comments to the blog were posted posted. According to Take Back Our Campus -- placed right under  a cartoon of a crying woman -- the college has already spent at least $15,000 on the lawsuit. So far there is no indication if Time Warner Cable will turn over information for those addresses.

One thing is certain: Every step of the process will be blogged about.



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