The Latest “Threat” to Academic Freedom and Free Speech: Mark Crispin Miller’s Libel Suit at New York University
Dr. Naomi Wolf interviews Professor Mark Crispin Miller on this Libel Suit at New York University.
A note from Dr. Mark Crispin Miller from his Substack:
The latest on my libel suit at New York University, and why the outcome matters to us all (CORRECTED)
My case is ironclad. In order to dismiss it, a lower court has set a precedent that poses a grave threat to academic freedom and free speech in the United States
Many of you know that, in the fall of 2020, most of my department colleagues tried to get me fired at NYU, by formally accusing me, in a letter to the dean, of various imaginary crimes so heinous that my academic freedom should be waved aside, my “conduct” subjected to “an expedited review” by the administration, and my horrid self then duly “disciplined” (which, given the enormity of my alleged abuses, could only mean that I should be let go ASAP, despite my tenure as a full professor, and—if I may say so—popularity among the students).
As my colleagues’ every charge was—not to put too fine a point on it—deranged, I quickly wrote a point-by-point rebuttal, sent it to the letter’s 23 signatories (in the Department of Media, Culture & Communication) and asked for an immediate retraction and apology. No answer. I followed up a week later with the same rebuttal and request, this time with a deadline (November 20th) for the latter, and again heard nothing back. So I decided that I had no choice but to sue 19 of the signatories for libel. (I’m not suing the junior faculty who signed.)
What’s happened since is quite a story—and its latest turn is very dangerous to dissident expression in this country. Here I’ll tell that story, and explain the danger, so that you’ll be aware of it, and (I hope) share this essay far and wide.
Now, for a detailed summary of what happened back in 2020, here are several podcasts that I did over the months thereafter. Any one of them will give you the basic facts (although they don’t include some choice details that I’m revealing here, some for the first time):
Tessa Leena’s Make Language Great Again:
Useful Idiots, with Matt Taibbi & Katie Halper (starting at 23:00):
Tom Woods (the first of my three conversations, so far, on his excellent show):
The Same Drugs with Meghan Murphy:
Catherine Austin Fitts:
Dr. Joseph Mercola:
And for those eccentrics who would rather read this background than watch or hear me tell it:
> On September 20, a student in my propaganda course became enraged by my suggestion that, if one were to analyze the universal mask imperative as propaganda—which need not necessarily be false, but which is always simplistic and one-sided—one would need to read through all the scientific literature on masking, including all those studies showing that it doesn’t work. Although she said not a word throughout that class discussion, the student (by her own aggrieved account) called NYU’s “bias hotline” to report me; and having got no satisfaction there, she went on Twitter to demand that I be fired, for putting the students at risk. She followed that first tweet with many others trashing me for my offensive views, with screenshots of my website, “News from Underground,” to show that I was partial, or addicted, to such “far-right and conspiracy” outlets as Technocracy, Global Research, ZeroHedge and The Highwire with Del Bigtree.
(Instantly, that stream of tweets got far more traction than one might expect from someone with only 79 followers. Not only did it garner scores of comments, pro and con, but it sparked three media hit-pieces, including one from Channel 4, New York City’s NBC affiliate: “NYU Student Calls for Professor’s Firing After He Urged Masks Are Propaganda.” The other two attacks were just as accurate. None of those three outlets bothered to contact me before vehemently weighing in—much like my department colleagues, as we shall see.)
> NYU then quickly took the student’s side, as (1) my department chair immediately tweeted his thanks for her demand, publicly assuring her that “[w]e as a department have made this a priority, and are discussing next steps” (a discussion that had not included me); (2) the dean of NYU’s Steinhardt School (in which I teach), and the doctor who dictated NYU’s (draconian) COVID policy, sent an email to the class, without putting me on copy, hinting that I’d given them dangerous misinformation, and including links to recent studies finding that masks do work, and urging that the class accept them—and them only—as The Truth; and (3) my chair then “asked” me not to teach the propaganda course the following semester (on a pretext of concern about enrollments, though that class was always full): an order that I had no power to refuse, and that has since turned out to be permanent, although he assured me that the ban (he didn’t call it that, of course) was just a one-time thing. Thus I am forbidden to teach propaganda at my university, even though the course was always very popular—I’d been teaching it for some twenty years—and despite (or because of) the immense importance of the subject, especially now.
> NYU’s ready exploitation of that student’s tweet decided me to write up a petition, with the help of friends, urging NYU to respect my academic freedom, and thereby set a good example for other universities, to hold a line against the rising wave of academic censorship worldwide. It was soon signed by over 40,000 people, including James K. Galbraith (U. Texas), Rashid Khalidi (Columbia), Cynthia McKinney, Seymour Hersh, Benjamin Ginsberg (Johns Hopkins), Gov. Don Siegelman (Alabama), Oliver Stone, Sharyl Attkisson, Lynn Comerford (Cal State, East Bay) and Dr. David Katz (Yale), as well as researchers and clinicians from Lynchburg, Santa Barbara, Green Bay and Lexington, Mass. to La Paz (Mexico), Madrid, Heilbronn, Trier, Changuinoa (Panama) and Rosebery in Australia. Averse to signing petitions, Ralph Nader sent a note expressing his support. (Noam Chomsky and Abby Martin were among the seeming friends of mine who would not sign.)
> On October 20—one month after the student’s angry tweets went up—Jack Knott, dean of the Steinhardt School, emailed me to say that he was ordering a “review” of my “conduct,” at the request of my department colleagues, whose letter he attached. It was the first I’d seen or heard of it; and it took my breath away. (The letter, along with all the other pertinent documents I know of, is on my website, markcrispinmiller.com.)
My colleagues started by affirming their belief in academic freedom—just not for me. Invoking NYU’s Faculty Handbook, they pointed out that, if it’s gross enough, professorial wrongdoing must nullify the miscreant’s academic freedom; and so it was with me, as they then sought to show.
Not only had I discouraged my students from wearing masks (an accusation that that student had not made), but I had also intimidated students who were wearing masks in class (even though that class had been online, via Zoom, with no one masking in it). They then went on to charge me with a range of other crimes repeatedly committed over several years, they said: “explicit hate speech,” “advocating for an unsafe learning environment,” “attacks on students and others in our community,” assailing my students with “non-evidence-based theories” (i.e., “conspiracy theories”), and “micro-aggressions and aggressions.” (They also passingly accused me of asserting that “Sandy Hook” did not take place, on the basis of one article I’d posted on the need for that incident to be properly adjudicated.) Not only did I terrify my current propaganda class, moreover, and try to give them COVID, but I victimized the student who attacked me, by posting, on my website, an account of what had happened, thanks to which (my colleagues claimed indignantly) she was attacked on Twitter, and now felt traumatized because of it, which “bullying” was all my fault (as if anyone who posts a controversial tweet does not get roasted for it).
Thus my colleagues went after me with what I came to call “the censorship trifecta,” as they accused me of (1) COVID heresy, whereby I had made my class “unsafe,” by urging them to question masking intellectually (if any of them should decide to write their papers on that subject); (2) “conspiracy theory” (the CIA’s enduring means of trashing dissident opinion), my colleagues accusing me not just of flogging crackpot notions, but of trying to force them down my students’ throats; and (3) “hate speech” and other crimes against “woke” etiquette. I think the peculiar comprehensiveness of that attack makes my case particularly apt as a defense of academic freedom and free speech, both of which have been at greater risk than ever since the onset of the COVID crisis, which, in that sense, hasn’t ended, and is only getting worse.
> In response to Dean Knott’s startling email, I took two steps. First, I asked to “meet” with him, necessarily online, to make it clear that there was not a single truthful accusation in that letter, and to urge, therefore, that his “review” be canceled. Intriguingly, he told me that he had to order it, because the university’s lawyers had told him that he must.* I then asked him what that process would entail, and when it might end. He said, vaguely, that they would “talk to people,” and that the process would be concluded at the end of the semester (in December, 2020). I told him, then, that I would have students, current and former, write to him in my defense, and he said that would be fine.
[*That wasn’t true. As FIRE soon demonstrated in a learned letter to Andrew Hamilton, NYU’s president, that “review” was actually illegal. Pres. Hamilton did not reply. https://www.thefire.org/research-learn/fire-letter-new-york-university-november-13-2020]
I solicited well over 50 of such letters, not just from students, but from speakers who had visited my classes, and so were able to attest to my civility and moderation as a teacher. Also, I can’t resist reporting, in light of my colleagues’ assertion that I tried to force my lunatic opinions on my classes, that several of the students wrote that I was, at NYU, a rare professor who did not police their views. (Those letters—which comprise the only bright spot in that whole ordeal—are accessible at markcrispinmiller.com.)
> The other step I took, as noted at the top here, was to rebut my colleagues’ charges, asking that they retract their letter and apologize; and then, when they had twice refused to answer, I found an excellent lawyer—Michael Sussman, a seasoned champion of free speech—and sued for libel. (It was my friend Mary Holland who connected me with Mike.) In expectation of a long and costly fight, I put up a GoFundMe page to cover the expense; and, as with my petition, garnered the support of many thousands, whose generosity enables me to see this struggle to the end.
My colleagues also got themselves a lawyer, and filed a motion to dismiss, on three grounds—(1) that everything they’d written was the truth; (2) that I had been the first to make our conflict public; and (3) that they did not intend to get me fired. All three claims are as truthful as their letter to the dean. To “prove” their charges, they submitted various exhibits—mostly email exchanges with each other, full of their own hostile gossip as to what they thought I’d said or thought. If anything, those emails only prove that they had no grounds for their claims about my teaching. I should add that none of them had ever seen me teach, or ever thought to ask me about any of the stands that they imputed to me. (Those exhibits too are on my website.) Nor, clearly, was it I who had first publicized the conflict, but the department chair, Rod Benson, with his warm public thanks to that livid student who had publicly demanded that I get the axe—a tweet that also proves that they certainly did want to get me fired, just as their letter does, portraying me as such a feral menace to the whole “community” that not firing me would be insane.
My colleagues filed their motion in January 2021. Although judges usually rule quickly on such early motions, Judge Paul Goetz took over a year to rule. On February 8, 2022, he granted their request that he dismiss the case (without requiring me to pay their lawyer, as they had also asked him to). He ruled for them on the surprising grounds that we had not proved “actual malice.” That far-fetched technicality, and his long delay, suggest that he was only looking for some way to make the whole case go away (as NYU, a highly influential player, surely wanted).
(Two months earlier, Dean Knott had informed me—one year later than he’d said I should expect to know—that his office’s “review” had found me innocent of violating any of NYU’s policies. This was, of course, a great relief, since my colleagues now had—or, at least, appeared to have—no (overt) institutional support. In any case, I have no reason to believe that any actual “review” took place, since I’ve never heard from any students claiming that the office of the dean had questioned them, as I no doubt would have, if that office actually did canvass students on the matter of my teaching.)
We appealed Judge Goetz’s ruling; and what happened next was even more surprising—and concerning—than his odd decision, with its “remarkably shallow analysis” (as Mike put it) of “actual malice.” On February 15 of this year, the intermediate appellate court heard oral arguments; and, three weeks later, on March 9, they handed down a ruling that, while partly positive, was even stranger than Judge Goetz’s, and far more worrisome. On the one hand, they rejected my colleagues’ bid to have my case dismissed as a SLAPP suit, which would have saddled me with their legal expenses. But the court upheld the dismissal of my case, claiming that my colleagues’ slanderous demand that I be “disciplined” on charges of repeated quasi-criminal behavior—charges that they claimed to be “the truth”—was just their “pure opinion,” and so “cannot be viewed as DEFAMATION,” as Mike wrote in his email with the news.
“This is crazy,” he went on. “The letter makes numerous FALSE FACTUAL STATEMENTS, the definition of defamation. So, we go to the court of appeals.” It now became a still more urgent case, since that court’s ruling set a precedent that must be overturned, or any libel case in the United States—where sliming dissidents, an ancient practice that today is (as it were) pandemic—will be instantly dismissible, and therefore no recourse for anyone who questions or rejects official narratives of any kind, and has been ruinously slandered for it. Meanwhile, those in power, and their accomplices, will be able, and (God knows) have sufficient resources, to sue for libel any critic of their policies or actions, however criminal. (Increasingly, we now see powerful US interests suing for libel under British law, which makes it easier than it’s been here.) Thus the court here in New York has made my case far more important than it was at first, since they have now effectively made it impossible for anyone who’s out of step to sue successfully for libel.
This, then, is where we stand—on very shaky ground, because, although we have, of course, appealed that very dangerous decision, we have no reason to feel confident that justice will be done, because the New York State Court of Appeals, in Albany, has tended to reject more cases than it takes; and if they do reject this case, we will have lost, since there’s no higher we can go.
That Court may rule at any moment. If, as I say, they turn it down, we’ve lost. If they accept it, we might win or lose (and Mike and I are confident of victory). In any case, I will keep everybody posted here, and thank you for your interest and (for those who’ve helped me so far) your support.
One of our country’s most important freedoms is that of free speech.
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