The Channels, a student-run community college newspaper in California, may seem like an unlikely target for defamation claims from one of the most prominent skeptics and science writers in the United States. The paper publishes stories about campus renovations, commencement speakers, and other everyday doings at Santa Barbara City College (SBCC). Its writers and editors — some of them still teenagers — work on the paper as part of their journalism classes.
But for a few weeks earlier this year, Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and a longtime columnist at Scientific American, was sending cease-and-desist letters to the newspaper and publicly criticizing one of its student journalists — part of a larger controversy that rocked the campus and, by at least some accounts, resulted in a faculty member losing his job. The hostilities have abated with the summer recess and the legal threats have, for now, been withdrawn.
Still, while nearly everyone welcomes the bright light the #MeToo movement has cast on sexual abuse in all its contexts, within academia, the rancorous dispute at SBCC managed to raise some potent questions about how best to report — and respond to — allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and related charges, particularly in an age when a single digital dispatch can travel the world.
In this case, it all started with an email.
On a Monday morning this past March, Raeanne Napoleon, the chair of the chemistry department at SBCC, sent out an all-campus message saying that Shermer, who was scheduled to give a talk on campus that evening, had faced allegations of sexual assault and harassment a few years earlier. Women, Napoleon wrote, should be careful at the talk.
Napoleon was referencing allegations against Shermer that emerged in 2013, when atheist blogger PZ Myers published the testimony of an anonymous woman who said that Shermer had raped her at a conference. A year later, BuzzFeed followed up with an investigation that included on-the-record comment from the woman, named as skeptic blogger Alison Smith, and two other women who say Shermer sexually harassed them. Shermer has repeatedly said that the allegations are not true, and he addressed them, point-by-point, in a long statement posted to his website in 2014.
A few hours after Napoleon sent her email, The Channels’ 19-year-old news editor, Daniel Wallace, published a brief article about the email. His story included comment from Napoleon, as well as quotes from a faculty member who felt that Napoleon’s email was unfair and defamatory. He didn’t reach out to Shermer.
That evening, Shermer told me, he noticed his talk was poorly attended. At dinner afterward, his faculty host told him about Napoleon’s message. Upset, Shermer responded by sending a long email to the SBCC all-campus list in which he accused Napoleon of defamation, said that both Wallace and Napoleon had aimed “to personally harm me,” demanded that The Channels retract its “libelous article,” and told both the school and the student newspaper that they “will pay” for any book sales affected by the coverage unless they pulled the piece.
When neither Napoleon nor The Channels complied, Shermer instructed his lawyer — more than once — to send them cease-and-desist letters. In these statements, Shermer took particular issue with Napoleon’s comment, later quoted in The Channels, that “the police did not bring formal charges against him.” That wording, Shermer says, implies that police were involved at some point, which is not true.
Napoleon says that this was not her intention, and while she did hire a lawyer, she was unimpressed by the threats from Shermer and his legal team. “If they specialize in libel and defamation,” she told me, “they should know that me sharing public articles about you from 2014 is neither libel nor defamation.” Napoleon says she was also surprised to receive an email from Carol Tavris, a prominent psychologist and a writer for Shermer’s magazine, asking her, “in the spirit of feminism and fair play,” to consider that Shermer had been falsely accused, and to apologize for her email.
Wallace, meanwhile, has characterized Shermer’s response as bullying and intimidation, and, in an email to Undark, he stressed that Shermer demanded the complete removal of the article, not a correction or update. The Channels has not changed the piece.
“Shermer is notoriously litigious,” said PZ Myers, who received legal notice from Shermer after originally posting the allegations in 2013. “You know that as soon as you say something, he’s going to come down on you with his lawyers.” (In an email, Shermer responded to Myers’ claim by defining litigious as “prone to engage in lawsuits,” and adding: “I have never sued anyone.”)
Asked about claims that he was bullying a student newspaper into silence, Shermer explained his response as one of necessity — and frustration with a process that, he says, has tarnished his reputation over unfounded claims. “How do you defend yourself? What are the options I have? Just ignore [it], and let people say whatever they want about me, including lies?” he said. “How do you respond when you’re innocent? No matter what you do, you’re guilty. I really have no idea what the best strategy is.”
That remains an open question, and the approach that Shermer explored — threatening defamation lawsuits — has become increasingly common on university campuses. More and more men accused of sexual assault have turned to libel law in response to allegations, sometimes receiving large settlements and, in the process, raising concerns among advocates that the suits will discourage other victims of sexual violence from speaking up.
These legal questions play into larger issues about due process and speech in the era of the #MeToo movement. Advocates like Napoleon say that sharing information on allegations is simply a matter of safety. Indeed, in academic and other professional settings, these kinds of warnings are often protected speech, as long as the information they share serves the common interests of members of the community, said Bruce E.H. Johnson, a lawyer at Davis Wright Tremaine, a Seattle-headquartered firm, and an expert in digital defamation law.
But the legal questions have been complicated by changes in campus culture, new digital technologies, and the #MeToo moment, which has resurfaced many allegations, like those against Shermer, that may have otherwise simply disappeared. “Old allegations have usually not been something of particular interest or relevance to people in their current and daily lives,” said Johnson.
“The law’s still catching up to this process,” he added.
In the end, Shermer decided in April not to pursue legal action. “I thought, forget it, who are these people?” he said. “Nobodies.”
Stressing that he was not familiar with the specific details of Shermer’s claims against The Channels, David Heller, deputy director of the Media Law Resource Center, said that cases like this tend to place “steep hurdles” for anyone trying to prove defamation. Shermer would not only have to demonstrate that the allegations were false; he would also have to show some malice on the part of the student newspaper.
What everyone seems to agree on is that events quickly veered in unexpected directions, and the interaction set off campus-wide discussions at SBCC. Prolonging the controversy, the school recently chose not to rehire the professor who hosted Shermer on campus, Mark McIntire, an adjunct philosophy instructor who taught at SBCC for more than 20 years. The college, McIntire says, told him that he was not being rehired because of deficiencies in teaching. McIntire was also under a Title IX investigation at the time for personal emails he sent to female faculty members after the Shermer incident, which some women reported as threatening. Shermer and McIntire have characterized it as political retaliation.
SBCC did not respond to a request for comment.
The Title IX investigation, which was completed in June, cleared McIntire of wrongdoing in his emails to faculty members, but did reprimand him for unethical behavior. He is currently pursuing an appeals process within SBCC in order get back his job, and he is receiving help from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, a high-profile advocacy group. McIntire told Undark that he expects to sue the school. “There was a conspiracy, a cabal, if you will, a coordinated effort, to put pressure on my department chair to fire me for reasons outside of Title IX,” McIntire said. Those reasons, he said, were at least partly related to his role in the Shermer dustup.
Meanwhile, Shermer says he has racked up $3,000 in legal fees. “From where I sit now, I wouldn’t have done anything,” he said, expressing concern over McIntire’s situation. Napoleon, for her part, has received more than $8,000 in donations on GoFundMe to offset her own legal expenses.
“I didn’t think twice about sending that email,” Napoleon said, adding that she now feels naïve. “I sent that email thinking this is the right thing to do. This is what you do. I watched the #MeToo movement happen!” Napoleon said. “I thought you spoke out against this stuff. I didn’t realize that speaking out would be so hard.”
Michael Schulson is an American freelance writer covering science, religion, technology, and ethics. His work has been published by Pacific Standard magazine, Aeon, New York magazine, and The Washington Post, among other outlets, and he writes the Matters of Fact and Tracker columns for Undark.