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Thomas Hubbard

University of Texas at Austin

A professor who does controversial research on age of consent is suing a graduate student who publicly criticized his writing and pedagogical choices.

The new libel lawsuit parallels two others the professor filed earlier this year. Both of those were against undergraduate students.

The professor, Thomas Hubbard, a classicist at the University of Texas at Austin, says he’s been unfairly maligned to the point of becoming a target of violence. As proof, he points to an early-morning protest outside his home last year, during which his property was vandalized. He says he so fears for his safety in Texas that he’s relocated to California.

Many scholars following the case say that they don’t condone physical violence or threats by any means. But they argue that Hubbard is now seeking to limit the very freedom of expression that affords him the right to study what he does.

“The use of litigation should only be a last, extreme resort for senior members in our field to address concerns regarding the public speech of junior colleagues and students, especially those in one’s own department and institution,” reads a statement signed by nearly 400 scholars. It demands that Hubbard drop the case against the graduate student in his department, Zoé Elise Thomas, as senior academics “already have substantial power over the careers of their students and junior colleagues.”

The intent of litigation like Hubbard’s -- even the threat of such litigation -- seems to be “to silence all criticism and to conflate such criticism with limited nonspecific use of terms that have specific legal meanings,” the statement also says.

Pederasty vs. Pedophilia

Indeed, Hubbard’s lawsuits are very much about language. Among other topics, Hubbard studies pederasty, or sexual activity involving a man and a male youth. The practice occurred with some regularity in ancient Greece, and Hubbard has argued that U.S. age of consent laws should be re-examined with that tradition in mind. He points to contemporary statutory rape laws in parts of Europe where the age of consent is as young as 14, and argues that these thresholds may be different for young men and women. Age of consent laws are gender neutral in the U.S., but Hubbard has argued that young men may require less legal protection, or merit a lower age of consent, than young women.

These are academic arguments, but also inflammatory ones with potentially serious real-life consequences. And so Hubbard has been decried -- falsely, he says -- as promoting pedophilia, on campus and off. To Hubbard, pederasty is a legal world away from pedophilia, which is defined as sexual feelings directed toward children. Hubbard has described his interest in pederasty as rooted an enthusiasm for criminal justice reform, not “sex with teenagers.”

He remains controversial nevertheless. Student groups have campaigned for his ouster, citing not only his writing but a class he once taught on “mythologies of rape,” and an assignment in which he asked students to analyze the legality of either real or hypothetical rape cases.

Hubbard has been accused of being part of NAMBLA, the North American Man/Boy Love Association. He denies that and strongly disagrees that ages of consent should be abolished altogether. Hubbard published a short book called Greek Love Reconsidered with Wallace Hamilton Press, a part of NAMBLA, in 2000, however. He's since argued that he was ignorant of that connection.

Thomas, the graduate student in classics whom Hubbard is suing, last year tweeted support for students protesting Hubbard at the time, saying, “Suffice to say: I am 100% behind these extremely brave undergraduates who are risking themselves in a system stacked against them to put an end to this BS.” She later retweeted a post saying, “Welcome to the field of Classics, where it’s controversial to say that someone who promotes pedophilic relationships, asked undergrads to talk about their rapes for a class assignment, and claims women are too biased to think critically about rape law should be afraid.”

Suggesting that students were unsafe with Hubbard on campus, Thomas also tweeted, “I condemn ALL aspects of this behavior: rape apologism, pedophilia, abuse of undergrads, cruelty, gaslighting, misogyny, elitism, and every other form of nastiness involved.”

Correcting the Record, or Coercing Silence?

“These are lies,” the lawsuit against Thomas says. “Dr. Hubbard does not have a history of pedophilic and rape apologism. Dr. Hubbard has never advocated or condoned either pedophilia or rape. His scholarship does not even concern pedophilia, which the [American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] defines as persistent attraction to pre-pubescent children, but the entirely different historical phenomenon of Greek pederasty, which pertains to adolescent males.”

To confuse "such basic terminology" is "irresponsible and defamatory," Hubbard alleges.

Hubbard’s attorney, Joe Sibley, said that Thomas and the other two defendants in their respective cases have all been sent letters asking them to correct their inaccurate statements about Hubbard. To date, they have not, he said.

The student defendants “falsely claimed that Dr. Hubbard promoted and encouraged rape and thus jeopardized the safety of students at UT,” Sibley said via email. “However, by making these false statements, these defendants, in fact, put Dr. Hubbard's safety at risk, resulting in a violent mob attacking his home.”

The students “were given an opportunity to retract and/or correct their false statements regarding Dr. Hubbard many months ago, but refused to do so,” Sibley added. “This left litigation as the only option for Dr. Hubbard to clear his good name and to receive justice."

Thomas said she couldn’t comment on the lawsuit. But the classics scholars’ statement on her case says that junior colleagues and students “should be afforded wide latitude to critique the scholarship, teaching practices and behavior of senior academics.” In such informal critiques, the statement says, “language that reflects common understanding rather than narrow technical definitions” is to be expected.

Litigation harms the education and careers of junior colleagues and students and makes for a “culture of fear and silence” within the field, it says.

The note urges Hubbard to find another means of redress and says that the lawsuit “has done more to promote and spread the language to which he objects than any of the limited public speech in which Zoé Elise Thomas has engaged.”

Hubbard emailed the following statement, demanding that it be included in full:

“I have resorted to litigation as an absolute last resort after my university, my department chair, and the [Society for Classical Studies] all refused my requests to provide a forum for resolution of these inflammatory charges short of litigation. The students were all informed by my attorney that their statements were provably false and defamatory over nine months ago, and were given the chance to withdraw or correct them. None of them did. Every legal scholar I have consulted agrees with my attorney that these were statements of fact, not mere expressions of opinion, and thus not protected by the First Amendment. Ms. Thomas, who has never met me or discussed any of her concerns with me, asserted that I was a ‘threat’ to her ‘safety’ and that of other students, and accused me of ‘behaviors’ including ‘pedophilia,’ ‘misogyny,’ and much else for which she has not one shred of evidence. The result of such remarks was an organized effort to pressure Classics students to boycott my classes, not to mention the violent attacks on my house which occurred only three nights after her statements. I have received multiple death threats and am no longer able to live in Texas safely or teach in-person classes. Considering the extent of the damage done, my response is entirely proportionate and appropriate.”

Liv Mariah Yarrow, a professor of classics at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York who signed the classicists’ statement, said, “Suing over speech, especially that of a graduate student, is a threat to academic freedom and free discourse. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right; even when I disagree with Hubbard's views, I acknowledge his right to express them. However, our academic freedom does not guarantee an audience, much less a receptive one.”

Rebecca Futo Kennedy, associate professor of classics, women's and gender studies at Denison University, said Hubbard’s teaching and research are “protected as forms of academic speech. But the graduate student he is suing is also protected by academic free speech to criticize and comment on both the style and content of that teaching and on the impacts it has on the campus, department and academic community.”

She later tweeted, "I think for me, this whole thing boils down to a full professor attempting to punish a student within his own academic department for a tweet."

Two-Way Street?

Hubbard frequently appeals to academic freedom as “his right,” Kennedy said, but the lawsuit suggests he doesn’t “afford the same right to others.”

Hubbard filed his case against Thomas this month. Last month, Hubbard sued a Texas undergraduate for libel for tweeting, “Classics Prof. Thomas Hubbard has ties to NAMBLA … a pedophile organization.” Referencing the rape case analysis assignment, the undergraduate wrote, “He also taught a class @UT where he required students to write [about] personal experiences of sexual assault to see if they were 'really' rape, or just 'bad sex.’”

Texas president Gregory Fenves previously called Hubbard’s statements “outrageous.” But a faculty committee that later evaluated his recent courses reportedly found the content permissible.

J. B. Bird, university spokesperson, said it remains "unusual for faculty members to sue students and colleagues who have criticized them. We support robust discussion and debate about academic research and believe that should happen on campus and not in the federal courts."

Bird added, "The ideas or worldviews espoused by individual faculty members are their own and are not the university’s views." All faculty members on campus have broad academic freedom and the right to free speech, he said, "but cannot introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject." The university has said that a faculty committee reviewed Hubbard's recent courses and found nothing meriting a correction.

Hubbard is teaching courses remotely this semester, as are many faculty members, and the subject matter of those courses "is not directly tied to the research that has generated concern," Bird said.

Undergraduate Sarah Blakemore, whom Hubbard sued over the summer -- along with other unnamed defendants who created a flier accusing him of promoting both pederasty and pedophilia -- previously told the Austin American-Statesman, “No college student should ever find themselves in this situation -- being sued by a university professor.” In court documents, Blakemore has said she had nothing to do with the vandalism of Hubbard’s home and that her speech is protected.

While professors rarely sue students, it does happen. Some of these cases revolve around sexual assault, in which a professor is alleged to have had an inappropriate relationship with a student, and the professor pushes back against the student’s account. Hubbard’s case puts a new spin on that theme: he objects to how students characterize how he characterizes sexual relationships in which there is a power differential stemming from age, not academic position.

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