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The End of Joseph Murphy’s Libel Case

March 29, 2015

In the case of Librarian Joe Murphy, Team Harpy has apologized and retracted all of their statements:

Apologies and retractions

I apologize for the false and damaging statements that I have made about Joe Murphy. I ask you to please read the following statement for details from my perspective.

On May 3, 2014, I posted a post on my blog entitled “Time to Talk About Community Accountability,” which made certain negative statements regarding librarian Joe Murphy, even suggesting that he had sexually harassed women at librarian conferences. My comments had no factual basis at all. My intention in writing my blog post was to draw attention to the larger issue of sexual harassment of librarians. While I continue to feel that this is an issue that we must all address, I do now realize that Mr. Murphy was the wrong target for my post. There was no basis for me to make the comments and insinuations about Mr. Murphy that I made, except for a single tweet by Lisa Rabey.

Unfortunately, my comments have caused a tremendous amount of damage to Mr. Murphy, for which I sincerely apologize. I want my blog to credibly reflect genuine issues that impact me and my community. I regret making the comments that I did and the effect that they have had on Mr. Murphy and on his career and reputation. I wholly retract my statements and unreservedly apologize to Mr. Murphy for the damage that I have done.

I realize that a lot of people have rallied to my aid, but I have to be honest to them in saying “I was wrong” about Mr. Murphy and I urge anyone who might take the position that they “support” me by helping me to undo the damage I unwittingly caused to Mr. Murphy and to the cause of credible conversations about accountability and harassment.

— nina de jesus


I made false and damaging comments about librarian Joe Murphy for which I would like to apologize. I ask you to please read the following statement for details from my perspective.

On May 3, 4 and 5, 2014, I posted tweets that referenced librarian Joe Murphy implying without a basis in fact that he was a sexual predator. These unsubstantiated statements gained wide attention and caused Mr. Murphy significant damage.

My intention in posting these tweets was to draw attention to the issue of sexual harassment of female librarians in the profession. My statements were made carelessly, and were not based on facts. I have never observed Mr. Murphy sexually harass or exhibit sexually predatory behavior. Ms. de Jesus
relied on my tweets for writing her blog post. My statements should have never been repeated as they were based on gossip and innuendo, not fact.

I was ill prepared for the damaging impact that these unfair statements would have. I wholly retract my statements and unreservedly apologize to Mr. Murphy for the significant damage I have caused to his personal and professional reputation.

I strongly encourage those who aligned with #teamharpy and decided to attack Mr. Murphy to cease to continue to defame or disparage him. Mistakes have been made and we have the opportunity to show good character by apologizing and moving on.”

— Lisa Rabey


On the one hand, this is about as complete a retraction and apology as you can get. It’s a statement confirming that yes, the accusations made were not factual and yes, they did damage Mr. Murphy’s reputation and ability to continue to work in his chosen field. This was pretty much the definition of harmful libel.

So it’s over, right?

Sadly, not at all. First of all, Mr. Murphy’s reputation continues to be besmirched every time someone Googles this affair or even his name. Secondly, some of Team Harpy’s supporters have not yet updated their blogs to reflect the changes in this case. It doesn’t matter if this is omission deliberate, simply a case of waiting until more information is out or simply a case of someone neglecting to update an old blog post (or for that matter, forgetting it exists). Anyone seeing the post may assume that the case is still outstanding and thus form incorrect assumptions about Mr. Murphy’s character.

For Team Harpy, the stigma of making a false claim will remain with them for a long time and will damage the cause that they have attempted to champion as well as their professional reputation.

It is, to put it mildly, a bad ending for all concerned.

Libel is hard to prove— quite correctly the United States has a high bar for such proof, one that is designed to maximize the ability of individuals to speak about important issues. While Canada’s standard is somewhat lower, it is not nearly as friendly to libel suits as some people claim. But these protections are not put in place because libel is not seen as a serious crime— to the contrary these protections exist because free speech is so important. But that does not make the act of libeling someone any less odious, especially in an era where the Internet can toss up examples and stories from years ago at the touch of a search engine.

So what can we take away from this?

1. You must be diligent about what you write. It is most especially important to avoid personal attacks that are not backed up by the truth. Opinions must be clearly stated as opinions.

It cannot be said clearly enough that in today’s world, accusing someone of sexual impropriety can be a career ending event. The same goes for accusing them of financial malfeasance. IF such claims are made, the individual making the claim should ask themselves: If this goes to court, do I have enough evidence to make it clear that my claim is truthful?

2. Being forced to retract a claim can be truly harmful to the larger cause. Sexual harassment exists. But this case has harmed the cause of activists because there is now, spelled out in black and white, a case where an accusation was lodged and then  retracted due to its libelous nature. This weakens further claims and makes it all the harder to form an effective and even handed policy on this issue. It has likely permanently tainted

3. Most importantly, in the Internet age of blogposts and tweets, it’s very possible to get into trouble. You can publish a post with little more effort than talking about it to your friends— but by the virtue of being written down and published, it exists in a far different legal and social context than verbal speech. Individuals should keep this in mind, especially when publishing materials on a public blog.

Libel cases seldom have clear winners— even when the plaintiff wins, the damage to his or her reputation usually means that he merely suffered a less serious loss than would have occurred without victory. But he or she will always face the difficulty of rebuilding a professional or personal  reputation in a world where being forgotten is increasingly difficult, as will the defendants. This case is one such example of how nobody wins when libel raises its ugly head.

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