Friday, November 11, 2005

L'affaire Deignan: Free speech, academic politics, and the blogs

Inside Higher Ed covers a spat in the blogosphere that touches on some interesting issues of free speech and academic politics.

Paul Deignan, a graduate student in mathematics and mechanical engineering at Purdue who blogs at Info Theory, has run into some trouble with Bitch Ph.D. after challenging her in the comments thread on this post about the Samuel Alito nomination. Deignan is a conservative with strongly held "pro-life" views; Bitch Ph.D. is a leftist feminist academic. After some rather heated debate, Bitch Ph.D. banned Deignan from commenting on her site, but matters didn't end there. Another poster, University of Northern Iowa history professor Wallace Hettle, took it upon himself to email Deignan's dissertation advisors informing them that Deignan had been "'trolling' a feminist academic web site with disruptive and abusive comments" and hinting that it reflected badly on them, since he was linking to a homepage that listed them as his academic advisors. Deignan was apparently called in and advised to "refrain" until he's graduated.

Deignan is now threatening to sue both Hettle and "Bitch Ph.D." (partly because she has accused him of IP-spoofing to get around her ban) and to "out" the real-world identity of the latter.

Other blogs tackle this brouhaha here, here, and here (and in many other places).

What to make of this? Deignan's numerous posts on his own site don't exactly paint him in a positive light. He comes ascross as rather grandiose, egomaniacal, and prone to blustering; if he is, as he claims, concerned about his reputation and repercussions to his career, then he has certainly done more damage to himself than Bitch Ph.D. and Hettle have. He may well be an attention-seeker and, to be blunt, a jerk. His lawsuit threat against Bitch Ph.D. seems pretty ridiculous, and his stated intent to "out" her doesn't earn him much sympathy, either (though I wonder if the people who are righteously outraged were equally appalled by Brian Leiter's threat to "out" Non-Juan Volokh of the Volokh Conspiracy a few months ago).

That said, a few other observations are in order.

Hettle's behavior -- tattling on Deignan to his academic superiors for exercising his freedom of speech in a manner Hettle didn't like -- is appalling, and smacks of just the kind of politically correct thought police that many conservatives believe is rampant in the "liberal" academy. Hettle later asserted that he took this action only after Deignan had sent him "threatening" email. However, a look at the chronology, compiled by Hans Gruber at Advocatus Diaboli, shows that Hettle's initial claim to have reported Deignan to his advisors came before Deignan's two emails to Hettle and, in fact, prompted those emails (which were perhaps somewhat obnoxious but hardly "threatening"). There is some question as to whether Hettle had actually emailed Deignan's advisors when he first bragged about it. Either way, though, Hettle at least threatened to report Deignan to the proper authorities -- clearly with the intent of causing him trouble -- for nothing more than his comments in the thread at Bitch Ph.D.

It should be noted that "Bitch" and Hettle both claim that Deignan's worst and more trollish comments were deleted from the thread at the time of his banning. Unfortunately, neither of them has given any hint as to what was in those deleted comments. (A pdf of the comments thread is posted at Heignan's site, but it seems, at least at first glance, substantially identical to the one at Bitch Ph.D.)

Here is the post on the basis of which Bitch Ph.D. herself says, in the thread, that she is banning Deignan (the references to deleted comments didn't crop up until later, during the brouhaha over Hettle's running to tattle to Deignan's advisors):

Actually, I am a researcher.

The question of the day, "Can pro-choice activists be drawn out into a rational discussion of the Alito nomination and issues even more to the core?"

The answer goes to determining character and capacity. I have marked the question as answered. Unfortunately, it looks like I will need to wait longer for my bet to come to fruition (fementation?--The $100 was in grape juice).

P.S. "Smart" people don't worry about being called smart or proving smartness. We just think and ask questions with a point. And then we observe and think some more.

If we ask the right questions, then the results speak for themselves. In any case, the fun of it is in the chase.
Yes, I suppose you could argue that this is a flame dressed up in polite language, since Deignan is impugning the pro-choice activists' character and their capacity to argue rationally about the Alito nomination. But the fact is that before this post, Bitch Ph.D. herself had not only permitted but engaged in overt flaming toward Deignan (whose worst "sin" until then had been to accuse her of "linking talking points w/o analysis" and making "exaggerated and misconstrued" points about Alito's record). Here, for instance, is an earlier exchange between Hettle and "Bitch":

Paul Deignan is a prolife troll.

It is abortion related threads that attract trolls, and in my experience the trolls always seem to be men. Wonder why that is?

No, Paul Deignan is an arrogant sexist who is determined to show how much smarter he is than the lady professor.

Which pretty much explains why trolls of that sort are always men.

And an earlier exchange between Deignan and other posters at the blog:

Oh Paul, if it weren't for such smart and thoughtful trolls like you, how could we ever get across all these bridges to your brave new world?

It must be nice having one of those all expenses paid, live in a hotel at your think tank internships to keep you from the horrors of graduate school or the risk of having a woman boss in the corporate world. (and we all known how those corporate women bosses are ...)

I'm a PhD candidate at Purdue.

You could find that out easily with a tiny bit of research (two clicks).


got any slaves?
or is your state not allowed to protect the "right" to own slaves?

I'm sure Paul is very familiar with two clicks ... two clicks of his heels. Sig Heil!

This is about as blatant a display of "liberal" intolerance as I've ever seen. And it's followed by a vindictive attempt to use outright intimidation to silence and punish Deignan for having the temerity to express anti-abortion views at a feminist website. To their credit, many posters at various sites who identify themselves as left-of-center have been quite willing to acknowledge that. It's too bad that some liberal professors have chosen to defend Hettle's exercise in left-wing "academic McCarthyism," as Richard Bennett properly calls it.

Bennett makes another good point:

Feminists who support Bitch Ph. D. and her stances on women’s rights should support Deignan, because Hettle’s actions indicate a deeply patriarchal attitude. There was no reason for him to get involved in the spat between Bitch and Deignan; she was handling things in her own way and she’s fully capable of managing her blog. Taking the dispute into Real Life crosses a line, even when it’s your own dispute. When it’s somebody else’s, it’s completely absurd.

Scratch a "male feminist,"* and a lot of the time you'll find a paternalist who wants to play knight in shining armor.

* Footnote: I here use the word "feminist" not in the sense of someone who believes in the fundamental equality of men and women, but of someone who believes that women in our society are an oppressed class.


Pooh said...

Ugh. I hate it when people I agree with do stupid stuff like this. Wither the 'marketplace of ideas?' The sad thing is, in the context of these comments, Deignan comes across as the more rationl when compared to those calling him a 'prolife troll' and explicitly nazi-ish.

I think B. PhD cedes all moral authority the correctness of her position may have as soon as she explicitly engages in repressing opposing viewpoints. Admittedly, its her right to ban people from her comments, but if one can get banned for merely expressing an opposing view, how is the far-left any different from the ultra-orthodoxy the Vatican is attempting to foist on Catholic politicians and judges?

As a side note, I think you should remove the links from the quoted comments on your post, those people are not really involved here, and I'm not sure it's fair to expose them to flaming because of comments they made on another sight (which we may or may not be taing out of context here).

Cathy Young said...

Thanks for pointing that out, pooh -- the links automatically got pasted in with the text. I'll remove them.

Anonymous said...

Great post. This is pretty chilling, actually. An ideologue is an ideologue and intolerance is intolerance, no matter whether it's on the left or the right. Unfortunately, it seems that many people on the left aren't willing to look at or admit to the level of intolerance in their own ranks.

Revenant said...

He comes ascross as rather grandiose, egomaniacal, and prone to blustering

So now we know that he meets THAT requirement for a Ph.D... the question is, can he do the necessary academic work, too? :)

Rebecca said...

Actually, many commenters on all sides of this debate have been comparing this incident to the threatened outing of Juan Non-Volokh. There are many things that are generally agreed upon in the blogosphere, and among them are respect for anonymity *and* the respect for the right of bloggers to have their own commenting policies. Outing Juan or Bitch would be wrong, no matter how you look at it. In terms of commenting, opposing viewpoints have nothing to do with it. There are some frequent commenters at B's site who disagree with her. Bitch has a thriving community over at her site that she wants to preserve, and if from her perspective Deignan was threatening that, then what she did is her prerogative. If Deignan wanted to ban some of the more profane or obnoxious commenters over at his site, then that's his prerogative too.

One thing specific to this incident that is universally agreed upon is that Hettle's actions were unwise and uncalled for, though I suspect they were not illegal. Hettle can email anyone he wants about Paul's comments; the appropriate response from both Paul and his advisor would have been to ignore the email. (If someone ever emailed my advisor about my online activity she would just laugh it off.) Now that Paul himself has publicized this, I can imagine that both his advisor and his department face some embarrassment over the whole business--which could have been avoided if Paul had just ignored Hettle's actions.

The Inside Higher Ed article implies that Paul's advisor asked him to watch his online commenting until he's done with his degree, and that seems to be being taken as an abridgement of his free speech. I suspect that what his advisor said was more along the lines of, have a care for your professional future and please, please don't involve the department. Whether or not that advice was appropriate or not is fundamentally between Paul and his advisor.

I might add too--no one would have known the (fairly innocuous) contents of Hettle's email if Paul had not posted it. How can one even think of pursuing a libel case when one is intentionally publicizing an alleged libel that was only sent to one person?

The whole affair is pretty silly.

DADvocate said...

Knight in shining armor, exactly the perception I've had of many of the male feminist:

The "Knight in Shining Armor" syndrome. Honorable men must rescue the fair maidens in distress, even if they aren't in distress and even if they are causing the distress. It's ironic that the feminists appeal to the medival values of men to attain their goals.

I hate it when someone believes they have the right to destroy someone else's life just because they disagree on an issue.

Pooh said...

Bitch has a thriving community over at her site that she wants to preserve, and if from her perspective Deignan was threatening that, then what she did is her prerogative.

Agreed. Her having the right to do so and the wisdom of doing so are seperate issues in my mind. To me, it seems much like the distinction in first amendment law between reasonable time/place/manner restrictions and actual content restrictions. This isn't government action, but I think that's a useful guide to how you should or should not moderate your comments, if you are interested in having forthright discussions as opposed to hosting an echo chamber.

If you allow people on one side of the debate to use ad hominem invective, it doesn't seem right to punish one who answers in kind...

I don't think I'm familiar enough with the vibe of B PhD's commenters and Deignan's history within that group to make specific judgments as to whether this instance reflects a sensible attempt to mantain a decents standard of debate or an effort to exclude him merely because he makes points which are unpopular with the prevailing leanings of the group.

Rebecca said...

Pooh--In Bitch's particular case, part of her decision to ban Paul was not just because she judged his comments obnoxious, but also because his last comment threatened to "out" her. (She subsequently deleted that post but left Paul's other posts up.)

One might make the case that Paul's other comments were annoying and his responses tone deaf, and that other commenters were also behaving badly (the Nazi comment was particularly tasteless), and that one should not ban Paul without banning the others.

But Paul stepped over the line when he threatened, in the comments, to out Bitch.

Cathy Young said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone.


I agree that for an Internet community to thrive, it's important to be able to ban not only outright trolls but disruptive posters. (I say this as someone who has seen a [non-political] message board turn into a war zone due to a small group of malicious posters and an ineffectual administrator who was "too nice" to ban anyone.) Personally, though, I think that Internet communities should have fairly clear rules about banning. On the entertainment-related message board where I'm currently an admin, the rule is "three strikes and you're out": a violation of the rules (e.g. flaming) earns you a warning, and a third warning results in a ban.

Getting back specifically to Deignan: you say that Bitch Ph.D. banned him after he threatened to "out" her. I assume that't the "threat" she mentions after people in the thread start to question the ban and particularly Wally Hettle's tattling? I thought the "outing" threat was made specifically in response to the ban, and to Bitch's subsequent comment about IP spoofing?

Rebecca said...

Honestly, Cathy, my chronologies could be (way) off but I can tell you how I came to that conclusion.

Bitch PhD, in discussing the kerfuffle, made reference to a comment Paul made that she deleted that she says threatened the outing. Since Paul had to have made the comment before he was banned, I assumed that factored into B's reasons for banning him. It seems to be the kind of thing that would push most people from viewing a commenter as a nuisance to an active threat.

(I got this from this post of Bitch's; here's the link:

At any rate, Bitch's account and the numerous posts at Paul's are what I used to construct a chronology in my head, and I connected both Bitch's negative impression of Paul's behavior in the comments *and* his threat to out her as reasons for the ban. Since Paul never disputed that he made the comment with the threat on his site (and it looks like he's gone through everything with a pretty fine-toothed comb) I assumed it was true.

Unless, of course, I missed something somewhere. Which is entirely possible, since following this whole train wreck has been my writing-break entertainment. I'm absolutely fascinated by it. :) I've been known to delete comments I find offensive but I don't have a policy, as Bitch does. I wonder if I should get one...

Rebecca said...

Yikes, I'm commenting again. Sorry!

The link to Bitch's didn't work, so here's the sentence I zero'd in on:

The most salient part of this fool's threat (which was also made in a now-deleted comment on my own blog) is that he intends to find out my identity and publish it, notwithstanding my obvious desire to remain anonymous.

I interpreted that as Paul made the comment before he was banned, and B deleted when she banned him. He later (as we all have cause to know) repeated the threat on his site.

Now back to my regularly scheduled dissertation. Really. :)

Paul Deignan said...

There is an individual using the e-mail:

that has sent a threatening letter to my wife at work. Please search your records for this individual immediately.

I am concerned that he/she may pose a threat.


Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful and reasonable analysis, Ms. Young. But when you say that, "Hettle's behavior ... smacks of just the kind of politically correct thought police that many conservatives believe is rampant in the "liberal" academy," you seem to be sugar-coating things a bit.

It is more appropriately described as "an example of the politically correct thought police that many conservatives have identified in the "liberal" academy."

Cathy Young said...

Rebecca, thanks for the qualification; it's still not clear to me at which point the "outing" threat was made.


It is more appropriately described as "an example of the politically correct thought police that many conservatives have identified in the "liberal" academy."

It's my blogpost, and I'll decide what description is appropriate for me, thank you very much. *G* I don't believe that PC thought-police behavior in the academy is nearly as rampant as a lot of conservatives believe it is.

Dean said...

As usual, you have a reasoned take on this, Cathy.

As far as I'm concerned, none of the participants in this come off looking good. Maybe it's a good thing for Bitch that she's anonymous.

It brings to mind the old saw about never wrestling with a pig: you'll both get dirty, and the pig likes it.

Cathy Young said...

Thanks, Dean.

If you look at Paul's latest post about the "threatening" email received by his voice, you'll see some more conduct on his part that, shall we say, does not inspire confidence.

As for "Bitch," she lost my vote of confidence when she pulled the sexism card. Allowing mskate's "Sieg Heil" slur against Paul to stand without any kind of criticism by the blog owner was pretty bad as well, IMO.

Anonymous said...

It's okay to be sexist, as long as it's against men!

Unfortunately, this case of academic backstabbing is entirely believable. I look forward to a lawsuit so that the world can see what goes on inside the ivy-covered walls.

Anonymous said...

I think this sentence from the original post contains an error:

Hettle's behavior -- tattling on Deignan to his academic superiors for exercising his freedom of speech in a manner Deignan didn't like -- is appalling...

Shouldn't the bolded "Deignan" actually be "Hettle"?

Anonymous said...

Actually, the more I read it, the more I see that the clause has a whole bunch of potentially confusing modifiers. Would it be worth recasting altogether?

"Hettle's behavior -- tattling to Deignan's academic superiors when Deignan exercised freedom of speech in a manner Hettle didn't like -- is appalling..."

(I am not nearly the wordsmith that Cathy Young clearly is, so please don't take my comments as anything but a humble suggestion for clarity's sake.)

Cathy Young said...

Corrected -- thanks for the catch!

Anonymous said...

Allowing mskate's "Sieg Heil" slur against Paul to stand without any kind of criticism by the blog owner was pretty bad as well, IMO.

I agree, and would add marky's "got any slaves?" comment to that as well, although that one doesn't violate Godwin's law, so maybe it's not *as* egregious.

Cathy Young said...

colagirl, I agree. Maybe there should be a "Godwin's law" equivalent for references to slavery, too?

Dean said...

Hans, there's blame to go round on both sides. The initial attacks on Paul were vicious and stupid. Bitch's unwillingness to engage someone who appeared to be presenting rational arguments (more rational than the points being made by those that agreed with her, in any event) is chickenshit. Hettle's action is completely unconscionable.

However, Paul's going ballistic and threatening a lawsuit is likewise completely over the top, as is his pushing the whole thing when it became apparent that Bitch was going to be childish.

Like I said, nobody looks good in this one. They all look immature, self-important, and incredibly petty.

Bitch's hypocrisy is not excused by Deignan's threats.

Deignan's threats are not excused by Bitch's hypocrisy.

Nothing can excuse Hettle's behaviour.

Pooh said...


Perfectly stated.

I just wanted to add my final thoughts on the apparent viewpoint-restrictiveness of the whole affair. It's B. PhD's right to have any sort of discussion she wishes on her blog, but if she wants it to be anything more then 'mini-Kos' she has to inforce the rules at least as stringently on those with whom she agress as on those with whom she doesn't. (I can even see an argument to be even more agressive in policing her side...)

Cathy Young said...

Hello kyle,

Welcome to this humble abode, and I hope you stick around. :)

About Wally Hettle's suspected sexism: in my defense, I wasn't the first to bring up the point, it was Richard Bennett. (There I go -- hiding behind the back of a man! *G*)

I thought Wally's attitude carried a whiff of "I'm here to protect women from evil patriarchal men" paternalism because (a) in his very first post about Paul D., he stressed that "pro-life trolls" are nearly always men, and (b) in his email to Paul's advisors, he stressed that Paul had been supposedly "trolling" on a feminist site.

I do think that a lot of self-proclaimed "male feminists" come off as would-be knights in shining armor -- for instance, when they vehemently protest that feminist male-bashing or female violence toward men should not be treated as a cause for concern becaus men are the ones in power.

But that's a bit beyond the scope of this discussion.

Anonymous said...

Feminists who support Bitch Ph. D. and her stances on women’s rights should support Deignan, because Hettle’s actions indicate a deeply patriarchal attitude.

Richard's logic makes no sense. Just because Hettle acted badly, doesn't mean feminists should support Deignan. Deignan and Hettle are both appalling; I can't imagine supporting either one.

Cathy Young said...

Barry -- point taken.

Anonymous said...

Cathy Young writes: "As for "Bitch," she lost my vote of confidence when she pulled the sexism card. Allowing mskate's "Sieg Heil" slur against Paul to stand without any kind of criticism by the blog owner was pretty bad as well, IMO."

So are you for or against thought policing?

Cathy Young said...

anonymous: I'm against thought policing. I'm for civility.

I don't believe that calling an opponent a Nazi (unless he or she actually is one) is a form of "thought," any more, say, racial epithets.

Had "Bitch" taken to Paul to task for the rude and overbearing tone of some of his posts, I would have had no problem with that. Provided, of course, that she also pointed out to "mskate" that her conduct was unacceptable.

Personally, I think flaming of the sort used by "mskate" is a bannable offense.

Anonymous said...


I see civility--civilization--as involving some sort of policing. A cop may give me a warning for speeding, but it's with the intent to discourage similar offenses in the future. Another cop may not warn me, instead will issue the $150 ticket. One cop may pull over all four speeding vehicles, another may pull over one car out of the four, no matter the protestation of the driver ("They were going faater than I was! Why didn't you pull them over!") What irks me most is pontificating rubberneckers. They slow progress.

Civility, policing. Someone is (some people are) judging. Call it by whatever name makes you feel better about yourself.

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