‘Difficult Conversations’

What does it mean when the National Communication Association shuts down discussions on its Listserv?

September 26, 2019
 
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The National Communication Association suspended the unmoderated discussion section of its Listserv this week, following escalating tensions and a legal warning.

Experts say two professors’ threat to sue the organization over the tenor of communications -- specifically allegations of racism -- carry little to no weight. But it’s significant when a group dedicated to communication suspends a form of communication. The debate might also inform how scholars in other fields interact with each other online going forward.

“As most communication scholars can recognize, when your Listserv is being used to issue broad legal threats, the discourse is neither helpful nor constructive,” said Guy McHendry, an associate professor of communication at Creighton University who’s been watching what's been happening on the Communication, Research and Theory Network, or CRTNET, Listserv. "Given that this controversy has made many -- especially precarious scholars in our field -- feel harassed and bullied, NCA’s actions seem necessary."

McHendry added, “We need to pause and reconsider the ethos of CRTNET discussions rather than letting anger and retaliation become the norm.”

Comms Suspended

That’s similar to what Star Muir, association president and associate professor of communication at George Mason University, said in an email to members announcing the suspension of the Listserv’s discussion section.

“For the near future, CRTNET will continue to distribute calls, event announcements, obituaries, and position announcements, but will ensure that opinions and reactions are not posted until decisions have been reached about the future of CRTNET,” Muir wrote. “NCA’s leadership is committed to NCA’s Credos and Public Statements supporting free speech, ethical communication, and the free and responsible use of electronic communication. Figuring out the possibilities for clearer Terms of Use that might ensure these values in a respectful, moderated climate of engagement is a significant challenge, and will certainly impact any decisions about the forum.”

The association’s executive committee will address the issue at its next meeting, in November, Muir said. In the meantime, the organization will gather more information about the responsibilities of possibly moderating the form, and whether the association should even continue to host an email discussion Listserv “given the availability of other discussion technologies.”

What precipitated the decision? Muir explained that CRTNET has long been hosted by Pennsylvania State University, with Thomas Benson, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor Emeritus of Rhetoric there, identified as editor in chief. The association does not, by policy, limit or prevent the publication of submitted messages. But it is “clear to the leadership that several issues have emerged” to make the discussion portion “less useful and less inclusive.”

There has been “considerable negative feedback about the discussion portion of CRTNET, particularly on the ways that CRTNET as a site of discussion relevant to our discipline has become ineffective as a means of communication,” Muir continued, “including posts that are better suited to one-on-one conversations and posts that some members report interpreting as harmful and/or threatening in nature.”

Muir didn’t go into detail. But the communication association has seen heated discussions related to race of late. In June, amid concerns that all but one of the group’s 70 distinguished scholars are white, members debated whether the association was right to switch to a new way of selecting those scholars. More recently, and more central to the Listserv, a poster was criticized for the way he discussed undocumented immigrants.

Threats of a Lawsuit

Specifically, Richard E. Vatz, Towson Distinguished Professor at Towson University, wrote following this month’s Democratic debate that moderator Jorge Ramos of Univision “never mentioned the illegal immigrant threat and the history of illegals’ murder and rapes in America, instead conflating legal immigration with illegal immigration.”

Objecting to subsequent criticism on the Listserv that his language was racist and nativist, Vatz posted what he called a warning. He was joined in his post by a colleague, Rod Carveth, associate professor of journalism and communication at Morgan State University, who had previously defended him on the Listserv and implied that Vatz’s critics were not following their own previous endorsements of civility, even in the face of offensive speech.

From “this day forward,” Vatz and Carveth wrote, “anyone who publicly (on CRTNET, for example) labels us as ‘racist’ -- not who attacks our writings substantively -- will face possible legal civil action. This includes CRTNET’s choice to print such defamation.”

Vatz and Carveth wrote that while they “encourage substantive debate” on all topics, “libelous statements can attach to completely innocent parties. That ‘colleagues’ in our field throw around such despicable, vilifying and false labels willy-nilly leaves us just incredulous -- and concerned about our professional reputations.”

To their doubters, they wrote, “If you think that we could not prevail in such litigation, please think again.” Winning means, in part, proving defamation, and "racist" “is such a defamatory term that it would be considered ‘defamation per se,’ meaning we would not even have to prove harm to our reputations.” Any money recovered would go to the United Negro College Fund, “per our academic interests,” they added.

In response to questions about the incident this week, Vatz confirmed that he sent the message in question, saying via email that it “led to the suspension of CRTNET.”

Ken White, moderator of the legal website Popehat and a First Amendment litigator, said this week that the basic idea behind defamation suits is that only “provable statements of fact can be defamatory.” Insults, hyperbole and opinions -- except for opinions based on false facts -- can’t be defamatory. And in “almost all circumstances,” he said, the comment “You are a racist” is an “opinion based on public behavior.”

In this case, in particular, White said, the opinion seems to be “You are racist for using that word [illegal].” And that’s “absolutely pure opinion and absolutely protected by the First Amendment.”

White noted that the association, in particular, also is protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which insulates platforms from liability over defamation by its users. If the association is concerned about the professors' “bumptious threats,” he added, it needs “competent legal advice, fast.”

Muir told Inside Higher Ed that the legal threat did not move it to suspend the Listserv. Instead, Muir said, it’s just the kind of comment that makes the association question not moderating the forum.

“We have substantial and growing discontent and feedback that the discussion board was not fulfilling its purpose and had been hijacked by a few people, with most comments wondering how they can opt out or not receive the discussions,” Muir said. And just this week the relationship between the association and CRTNET has changed, in that the original host and moderator no longer want to be associated with the list.

That puts the association in the position of disassociating from the network or taking it over, Muir explained, and its leaders are “clear that managing an existing unmoderated open forum is quite different from taking over ownership and full responsibility for the forum, which would have to be moderated.” And so the group needs time to consider if and how it might draft terms of use that “fulfill our values of free, ethical and responsible speech without posting threatening or demeaning rhetoric.”

To Listserv or Not to Listserv?

The communication association isn’t the first academic group to have trouble with its Listserv. Just this month, Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman resigned from his visiting professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s computer science and artificial intelligence laboratory over comments about sexual assault he posted to the lab’s Listserv. In response to the controversy, the lab’s director, Daniela Rus, wrote that recent events had prompted discussions about how to “improve the ways we respectfully work with one another in this community,” including “ongoing conversations about the future” of that Listserv.

Earlier this year, many scholars of writing abandoned the Writing Program Administration Listserv after someone anonymously posted a reference to the Ku Klux Klan. Many who stayed subscribed to the list wanted it formally moderated, citing additional examples of less obvious but nevertheless racist posts. Others still argued against formal moderation, or for the list’s ability to moderate itself.

Other group platforms for academics have shut down of late -- including the Feminist Philosophers blog, in May -- due at least in part to the increasingly Sisyphean task of keeping conversations productive.

Jennifer Saul, a former moderator of Feminist Philosophers and professor of philosophy at the University of Sheffield, in Britain, said in a recent email that the internet “facilitates and encourages a kind of debate that's tremendously destructive and damaging to the most vulnerable. It is also a very poor quality of discussion that is damaging to the search for truth.”

Listservs perhaps heighten that potential for harm, then, since they’re delivered straight to someone’s -- albeit a subscriber’s -- inbox. The nextGEN Listserv, an alternative to the writing program Listserv favored by many graduate students and early-career scholars, recommends minimizing harm by adhering to certain practices and principles. Those include examining one’s own position and privilege and “working actively to ensure that spaces like Listservs are valued as safer professional public spaces where all the members showcase a respect for one another, learn from one another and uplift one another’s positions and identities.”

Muir said that these kinds of “difficult conversations” are happening in organizations around the country, and that he hopes decision makers “have the courage to move forward and the wisdom to think things through before taking action.”

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