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When Petitions Demand You Give Up Your Rights

November 16, 2014

Ken White over at Popehat recently discussed the Canadian libel suit of Librarian Joe Murphy against Nina De Jesus of Canada and Lisa Rabey of the United States. Mr. White is far better equipped to go over the question of the facts of the case as presented. Put briefly, Murphy claims that Jesus and Rabey defamed him by, among other things, claiming that he was a sexual predator and regularly harassed women at various conferences. This includes describing him as a “sexual predator” and claiming that behavior is so well known that “women attending lib conferences literally have instituted a buddy-type safety system to protect themselves?”

The question of who is in the right will hopefully be answered in court. While a Canadian court will have less stringent standards for proving that an individual was defamed, “less stringent” does not mean that Mr. Murphy will automatically win his case. It should be noted that a court case can exonerate as well as condemn and should he lose this case most people will assume that every claim made against him is true.

If he wins however, Mr. Murphy is likely due every cent he will get. Accusations of being a sexual predator (Especially since the term has a number of connotations involving violent rape or sexual offenses committed against minors.) are some of the most career destroying allegations that can be made. Many teachers who were accused and then completely exonerated of sexual misconduct— not simply found not guilty but found factually innocent— have discovered that it made no difference to their careers. In effect the mere taint of the accusation was enough to destroy their careers. The same applies to nearly any profession involving substantial interaction with the public. If he has been defamed (and again, that is for the court to decide) then the damage to him has likely been both expensive and long lasting.

And that is what makes the following petition even more disturbing, as it calls upon, or more specifically, demands that Mr. Murphy surrender his right to bring legal action against individuals he claims have defamed him.

In part, the petition demands that Mr. Murphy do the following:

  1. That you immediately cease legal action against the two defendants.
  2. That you publically apologize for using legal actions to silence and prevent public dialogue about a critical issue in our field.
  3. That you compensate the defendants for any financial costs incurred as a result of your legal actions.
  4. That you make a meaningful, symbolic gesture of solidarity, healing, and reform. We leave the nature of this gesture entirely to your design.

This represents a disturbing demand. It is, not to put to strong a connotation on the petition, a threat. In any professional community an action like this would be taken as a threat that failing to agree with it might very well lead to future professional consequences of a negative nature. So let’s go down the petitions list, shall we?

That you immediately cease legal action against the two defendants.

The answer comes to mind: why? An individual does not surrender his rights upon becoming a librarian. More importantly, the petition is clearly being written from the view point that Mr. Murphy is guilty. It demands apology and compensation, and makes no demands upon the individuals levying the accusations. There is no good “meeting of the minds” here. Someone is right and someone is wrong and in that case, especially in a case like this, the proper venue is before a court that, if not completely impartial, is more so than any of the participants.

That you publically apologize for using legal actions to silence and prevent public dialogue about a critical issue in our field.

Should the victims of the Catholic Church’s inability to control abusive priests apologize for their legal actions? Don’t joke, that was actually a demand made in some cases. In this case, why should he? He is not trying to silence public dialogue, but rather is bringing a lawsuit against what he claims were acts of defamation. If anything, his actions have led to far more publicity of the subject then remaining silent would have.

That you compensate the defendants for any financial costs incurred as a result of your legal actions.

All one must answer this with is to simply ask: What if the defendants are indeed guilty of defamation? Does Mr. Murphy not have a right to seek redress in court?

That you make a meaningful, symbolic gesture of solidarity, healing, and reform. We leave the nature of this gesture entirely to your design.

But why should he? This is of course the problem with the entire petition— not only does it assume that the defendants are automatically innocent, it also assumes that Mr. Murphy is automatically guilty. If he has been defamed, the onus is not upon him to make any gesture at all. In fact, from the text of the petition and the comments of its supporters why should he? He has already been judged and found guilty by the court of gossip and any “gesture” he might make would be seen as proof of his guilt.

There are two reasons why this petition is disturbing.

The first is the attempt to enlist public pressure to prevent an individual from making use of the legal remedies provided him in a case of defamation. Defamation is a serious matter which can literally ruin an individual’s entire career. Indeed, being mugged is likely to have less in the way of long-term consequences. To attempt to use social pressure and what are effectively threats to an individual’s professional career to prevent him from filing a case or to force him to withdraw a case moves against the fundamental concept that recourse under the law should always be available to those who feel that they have been wronged.

And that gets to the second reason why this is disturbing. This tactic has been used, many, many times… against women. Against minorities. Against GBLT individuals who are seeking to obtain greater rights for themselves. The threat that the community, be it the physical locality or the profession in which the plaintiff is active, will ostracize the individual for daring to speak up for his or her rights has been one of the most powerful weapons wielded against those seeking legal redress. Indeed, women have disproportionately been targeted by these styles of attacks— just look at the typical defenses offered in rape cases until fairly recently. It was the victim, not the suspect on trial in court for her dress, her actions, her marital status— in fact, describing the trial as a “Second rape” was very often an accurate summation of events. Such incidents still happen unfortunately, but in general most courts are far less tolerant of that activity on the part of the defense attorney.

Librarians are theoretically dedicated to the open exchange of information and in a case like this, you can find little more open than a court case where the evidence will be made public— indeed, whatever decision the court arrives at, the onlookers have the opportunity to make their own judgment, not merely from the self-interested statements of both the plaintiff and the defendants, but the materials found in the court’s record of the case.

Joe Murphy has the legal right to take action if he feels he has been the victim of defamatory conduct. The defendants have the right to vindicate their position by demonstrating that their statements were true or otherwise privileged. The backers of this petition should be ashamed of themselves that they are attempting to deny an individual his right to seek  legal recourse for harm that he believes that he has suffered.

Disclosure note: I am not personally or professionally acquainted with any of the participants in this case. All information has been obtained from public sources.

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