Online Quicksand

November 10, 2005

Dissent is a way of life in the blogosphere; comments and barbs get traded, and feelings potentially hurt, every day. But one such discussion among three academics has escalated to the point that at least two of them have hired lawyers to try to resolve the dispute.

Paul Deignan is a 41-year-old mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate, with master’s degrees in math and mechanical engineering, a background in military intelligence and a wife and three kids.

Since taking up writing his own blog, Info Theory, in September 2004, he’s blogged about nuclear annihilation, mutual information between random variables, and suicide bombing. He’s also noted that the M6805 Athlon-based notebook “may be upgraded to 2GB despite the product specs’ claim that 1.25GB is the limit.” In sum, as his site motto says, he likes to apply information theory to the political and social problems of our day. 

The blogger from Purdue University also writes with frequency on abortion (in his view, it’s wrong) and blogger etiquette (in his view, it’s complicated) -- two seemingly unrelated topics. But in Deignan’s cyberworld, the two have collided in a unique way that may come to haunt his nine-year real-life journey toward a Ph.D.

On November 2, at 9:03 a.m., he reposted an earlier blog entry titled “Thinking Critically About Abortion,” which the anonymous blogger Bitch Ph.D. had commented on at the time. It said, in part, that Deignan believes that in “our democratic society … all persons have equal intrinsic rights,” and a “person is a person …when that person is alive.”  He then asked his readers to comment on his ideas. His comment policy clearly states that he “will make a good faith attempt to reply to all substantive comments.… Comments are only deleted for administrative reasons (spam, etc.).”

Bitch Ph.D.'s comment to that earlier post had stated: “What's interesting is that you're trying to frame this debate around the ‘personhood’ of a fetus, while completely overlooking the personhood of women.”

Also on the morning of the 2nd, Deignan visited Bitch Ph.D.’s blog about academe and politics where, by that time, the anonymous blogger had written about her distaste for President Bush’s Supreme Court nominee, Samuel Alito Jr.

Deignan soon responded to Bitch Ph.D. on his own site with a long comment that ended: “Now, note that your definition of sovereignty is actually anti-sovereignty. We are never sovereign if it is by permission of others that allow us to make decisions. Note also that a woman cannot spontaneously create life. She may only nurture preexistent life.”

Then he posted a seemingly innocuous entry on the Bitch Ph.D. site: "Your linking talking points w/o analysis. Already I see several points that are exaggerated and misconstrued without even needing research…”

Feeling that this comment and subsequent ones from Deignan did not qualify as “substantive debate,” she soon deleted his comments and banned him from her site. Her policy states, “Comments are great; obnoxious comments get deleted. Deal.”  

She elaborated Wednesday: “I considered his comments trolling, especially the later ones which are now deleted. In those, it became clear to me that he wasn't interested in a discussion, but in trying to be insulting.” 

What might have ended there as an everyday online spat was only the beginning.  A frequent visitor to the Bitch Ph.D. site, the University of Northern Iowa history professor Wallace Hettle, felt obliged to defend Bitch Ph.D.’s liberal end of the blogosphere. Hettle found Deignan’s curriculum vita at Info Theory, which lists his academic advisers, the Purdue mechanical engineers Galen King and Peter Meckl, who will play a big part in deciding if he will ultimately receive a Ph.D. Hettle e-mailed them, indicating that Deignan’s comments were “unprofessional” and “contrary to the spirit of free enquiry.” Hettle announced his actions within the comment section of Bitch Ph.D.  

“Yes, we received an e-mail,” King confirmed on Wednesday. “It said that Paul was exceeding his bounds, if you will, on what is essentially a private site. He’s been asked to refrain, at least until he’s [graduated from Purdue].”

But escalation, not restraint, has marked the ensuing days, in which Deignan, Hettle and Bitch Ph.D. have hurled accusations of various kinds at each other. Both Deignan and Bitch Ph.D. have hired lawyers. Hettle wouldn’t comment on whether he has done the same. 

Deignan said he is prepared to begin a lawsuit as soon as possible. He accuses both Hettle and Bitch Ph.D of libeling him -- Hettle because of the e-mail he sent to Deignan’s professors, and Bitch Ph.D. for saying that he may have used a technique known as “IP spoofing,” which is a form of hacking, to try to determine who she is. Deignan denies having done that.

Bitch Ph.D., said that she feels somewhat threatened by Deignan. “I don't know if his attempts to track me down represent a real threat, either in terms of my identity or in terms of a physical threat,” she said via e-mail Wednesday. “I don't know if what he's doing counts as cyberstalking. It's certainly upsetting.”

The untenured professor refused to communicate by phone for fear of revealing her identity, only allowing that she is “American born and bred” and “voted yesterday.”  

“I don't want my blog to embarrass my university or my colleagues,” she said. “I'm outspoken and opinionated on the blog, including about academic issues. 

“The secondary reason is that it's important to me that my personal and political opinions remain distinct from my classroom persona,” she added. “It's extremely important to me that my students not feel that I approach them with an ‘agenda.’”

Both Deignan and Bitch Ph.D. agree that this situation escalated rapidly when Hettle sent the e-mails to Deignan’s advisers, which Bitch Ph.D. says she wouldn’t have done. 

Hettle’s response for comment was curt: “I have received many e-mails on this matter, and that has been disruptive to my work routine,” he said via e-mail Wednesday. “I’m holding office hours at the moment and need to speak to a student.” 

Can this kind of dispute be settled in a lawsuit? Lauren Gelman, a lawyer and assistant director of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, labeled the situation “complicated” and said that Deignan will have to show how he was harmed and why. “He’s not going to be able to use the legal system to solve the fact that his feelings may have gotten hurt,” she said. But as the Internet continues to evolve, she predicted, “disputes like this are definitely going to become more frequent.”

King, one of Deignan’s advisers, had perhaps the most unique take on the situation in today’s Web-based society: “I don’t understand what blogs are,” he said. “Apparently, though, they can get you in trouble.”

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