Law Professor Seeks Bar Discipline For Attorney Who Posted Anonymous Criticism Of Her Work And Other Female Professors

nancy-leong-fullbody2There is a free speech controversy swirling around an ethics complaint in Illinois brought by University of Denver law professor Nancy Leong. Leong runs a blog site called Feminist Law Professors and recently discovered the identity of an anonymous commenter who has, according to Leong, left racist and sexist comments. She says that he is a a public defender in his late 40s and she wants him punished for his comments. We have discussed the free speech rights of public employees in an earlier column and blog postings, including the right to speak on blogs and Internet sites. The actions of Leong are troubling for those of us who believe strongly in free speech values, including the right to anonymity.

The poster used “dybbuk” in posts that referenced Leong. In one post, he talks about a 28-year-old law grad and wrote “I think she has the right age, gender, credentials, and eager-to-please attitude for an ‘odd job’ I have in mind . . . Basically it involves the girl dressing up as a law professor, bending over, and trying to ask me questions about International Shoe while I spank her with a wet slipper.” He also criticized Leong, including her presentation in Hawaii on “racial capitalism,” stating “Now that is what I call a gravy train or, shall I say, a luau train. Law professors enjoying a free Hawaii vacation at some seaside hotel. All they have to do is attend some ‘annual meeting’ of some ‘society’ where they pretend to listen to Leong yap about ‘pragmatic approach[es] of reactive commodification,’ while undressing her with their eyes.”

Leong found dozens of references about her on five different websites as part of her investigation, including disparaging her scholarship and describing her as “a comely young narcissist” and a “law professor hottie.” She also said that other professors that he criticized on these various sites were overwhelmingly directed at women and professors of color. She considers anonymous postings with sexist elements to be unethical. She writes in the complaint that “There are over 6,000 tenured and tenure-track law professors in the United States have less practice experience than I do. Most of them have weaker publishing records than I do. Most of them have weaker teaching evaluations than I do. Almost all of them have been members of the legal academy longer than I have. Almost all of them have more power and prominence than I do. In light of these facts, it is difficult to think of a reasonable explanation for [dybbuk’s] obsessive attention to an untenured professor.”

That does not sound like the basis of an ethics complaint. I am highly sympathetic to Leong because I have long been amazed how anonymity unleashes the both base and juvenile instincts in some people. Many posters are consumed by jealously and prejudice — venting these feelings in a way that would never be tolerated in many public or employment settings. They often seem personify their anger in their own lives or careers against those who take on public causes or positions. It is a sad statement of our species and something that has led many blogs to ban either anonymous postings or all comments from their sites.

I can certainly understand Leong’s desire to set matters straight, though I have had far worse comments directed my way as a newspaper columnist and a television commentator. I rarely if ever respond or even correct false statements on my background. As many know, this blog enforces a civility rule while working hard to avoid banning individuals in light of our free speech principles. We also recognize the right of anonymity. When you write for a newspaper or a blog, you willingly become a public figure — a role that comes with both good and bad speech direct at you by others. One of the few exchanges that I have had with a critic was not over the content of criticism but the tenor. Some of you may recall that a few year ago I had an interesting exchange with another legal blog where the host expressly rejected civility on her site or other sites. I continue to believe that people, especially lawyers, carry a responsibility to engage in respectful and civil dialogue. All of us will have relapses, but most of us were raised to show such respect in dealings with others, even those with whom we disagree. Clearly Leong is dealing with someone who long ago abandoned such restraints, but that does not mean that his speech should be the subject of discipline by a bar.

In my view, the criticism of Leong’s writings or experience falls squarely under protected speech. Ironically, she has an impressive publication and academic record that speaks for itself without the need for extrinsic disciplinary mechanisms. Moreover, as an anonymous filing, these are postings that do not reflect on this man’s employer. Underlying the complaint seems to be a view that sexist or racist statements made as an anonymous person would still constitute a violation. We have discussed in many blogs and columns and (here) how non-discrimination laws have increasingly collided with free speech principles.

In a blog posting, Leong speaks about investigating harassers. She says that she tracked down her critic to confront him:

To my regret, my harasser refused to speak to me. I called him at his office (once) and left a message with the person (not him) who picked up the phone simply leaving my name and number and asking him to call me. He didn’t call back. A few days later I emailed him (once), explaining that I had identified him and that I wished to discuss his Internet posting activities. The email was difficult to write. It triggered emotions relating to an experience confronting a person who abused me many years ago. I did my best to keep the email polite and professional and–to the extent I could–I tried to express some sympathy for circumstances in his life of which I might not be aware.

It clearly did not work and Leong proceeded to file a formal complaint. That is where I have to respectfully disagree with Professor Leong. The effort to punish this poster threatens free speech and creates a chilling message for those who wish to engage in discussions on an anonymous basis. I know that that is not her purpose but she is attempting to discipline a person for criticizing her and engaging in language that she finds offensive. That is anathema for most civil libertarians even though most of us find these writings to be offensive and insulting. As academics, we owe a special duty to free speech and the need to preserve protected spaces for such speech on campus and the Internet. This is precisely why it was so alarming to see Jewish students recently seek to strip anonymity for posters of material that they find objectionable. Free speech comes at a cost, particularly for those who become public figures. The Internet is rife with hateful and false statements. However, it is also the single greatest advance in free speech in history. I am confident that the work of Professor Leong will be remembered long after dybbuk has passed into well-deserved obscurity. However, this should not be part of that legacy.

I understand from personal experience the anger and frustration of having trolls and critics write false or vicious things about you. Yet, Professor Leong should withdraw this complaint. If not, it should be denied by the Commission as intruding into free speech areas, in my opinion.

What do you think?

Source: ABA Journal

232 thoughts on “Law Professor Seeks Bar Discipline For Attorney Who Posted Anonymous Criticism Of Her Work And Other Female Professors”

  1. Jonolan,

    If I recall you were here before I was…. And the patty c drama…..

  2. Nick,

    😆 Somehow you missed me and my freakish avatar, though I’m unsure of how. I know this because we’ve been on the same post before.

    Unfortunately, this thread has gotten so long and busy that I’m losing track of it and the various conversations within it. I’m probably going to bow out of it. I didn’t really have anything more to say anyway.

  3. jonolan, Thanks for the history. You have a pretty unique avatar and I just don’t remember seeing it previously. I’ve been here a couple years or so and know little predating that. Although, I do @ times read the archives just to try and understand the history of this forum.

  4. @bigfatmike: Personally, I don’t think this event would have garnered anything close to the responses in this blog if she had just ignored him to begin with. Unless he threatened her with some kind of bodily harm, he’s just another jerk with too much time on his hands. However, feel free to call me if you need me. Uncle Murray.

  5. @Nick

    I’m not new. I’ve been here off and on for years, often raging back and forth with Mespo and few others. In fact, that’s been such a long-running thing that Mespo even had to comment on the oddity of our being on the same side…though our reasons for our positions are only tangentially related.

  6. Any post which begins with “all men” or “all women” I ignore. As for how I feel about woman lawyers, I don’t. They are here to stay and my only interest is if they are professional women who know they are women, or unprofessional women who act like jerks because they see men act that way and think that is the way of power. Sigh. It is undeniable, however, that some judges show preference to attractive women lawyers and I can’t do anything about that. It is undeniable that some men judges don’t like women and some women judges don’t like men. It is an imperfect world, Master/Mistress Jack/Jill. But keep the conversation going as sexism of any kind is unacceptable and we are the ones who can reduce the incidents. As a child of the ’60’s, there isn’t a lot I don’t know about feminism and women’s rights. Those who taught me are still around, and would gladly lynch me if they caught me being a chauvinistic pig. Women have come a long way in recent years, and it is our obligation to assist them the rest of the way in any way we can. That’s what real men do.

  7. I agree bigfatmike, but the blatant sexism dybbuk used as the accelerant to the fire he used in an attempt to burn up her career is very disturbing.

  8. annie,

    You know how all us gals swish and sway our lady parts to snare wealthy fellas. Oh, if only I were young and nubile again and could use my naughty bits to win “The Donald” away from his third wife.


  9. I think the discussion of sexism and to a lesser extent racism is interesting. But it occurs to me those issues are really tangents. I think we have ample evidence to demonstrate that Leong was stalked and harassed. In that sense it matters not at all whether the tool used was sexism or any other form of attack.

    We may not have all the information. But there seems to be enough to conclude the dybbuk was trying to damage Leong professionally and perhaps in other areas of her life as well.

    Leong’s situation shows how few are the resources for people to protect themselves from stalkers and harassers. Unless the harasser actually commits an crime against their body or property there is little protection against a determined enemy.

    Telling a persuasive story to a judge may result in a stay away order. But even that is useless till served and may not deter a determined harasser.

    Threat of a law suit may deter a pillar of the community. But what if a harasser is suit proof, or so determined they are not deterred by the threat of financial ruin.

    I agree dybbuk used sexism. I also think he used it because it was convenient and in his mind damaging. But does anyone think all would have been well if we lived in some ideal society where sexism had no power. I don’t think so. I think dybbuk would have found other accusations and found other ways to ridicule and harass Leong.

    The real issue here is stalking, harassment and the lack of effective tools that offer protection to those who just want to get on with their lives free of interference and intimidation.

  10. LOL, it’s actually getting humorous. Now he says he wrote that comment in jest, bwhahahaha. Sorry, couldn’t help myself, it’s female hysterics. 😉

  11. annie,

    Double OY! Hand me the extra-strength Excedrin!

    It’s interesting to see how some of the men who have commented on this thread perceive/feel about women.

    1. Annie – Absolutely, but I do have a daughter and a grand daughter. I also happened to go to a high school where there was very rich and very poor so some of the generalities where perceptions that many guys think.

      Don’t get me wrong, many of the things mentioned apply to men equally.

      I wrote it in jest, so you shouldn’t have to take a pill.

  12. DavidM, You understand the very fundamental point about men being the predators in our species and explained it superbly. You gave a great analogy. I think there is nothing else to say except, “We tried.”

    1. From the time they are little babies, they understand and are told how cute they are etc. and start feeding off of saying “no” and whining to get attention and their way. As soon as they go through puberty, a new and miraculous personality appears out of somewhere deep in satan’s dynansty. The once sweet little girls, starts swishing their bottoms, padding their bras, taking enormous amount of time to figure out what to wear, how to cut their hair, how to sneak out of the house, while breaking hearts along the way.

      A couple of years later they are analyzing, with their moms and girlfriends, the potential wealth of the boys and how much money their parents have. Some of the wealthier boys, despite being less physical and mentally attractive, somehow find their way to the clichest parties and dating the more attractive females, except for the lead varsity cheerleader, who gets fooled by the promises of the varsity quarterback, but later dumps him for a college grad as she gets her degree in psychology, english or the arts.

      Women bring us the softer side of life and I truly thank them for that, but it does not come with a bowl of cherries as Mom was waning me about. From the time I went through puberty, there was not many time that I would go longer than 10 minutes without thinking about being intimate with one or more of them, often times, to an annoyance. To say that a man’s sexual drive is strong is an understatement, that I thing women can’t possibly understand and thank God, as I have gotten older, it is slowing down a bit.

      I’ve had four serious girlfriends and a wife over my sixty-one years, and they still amaze me in “numerous” ways. They are surely sensual creatures from a unknown galaxy far, far way, but I do not care where they came from, because without them, our world would be crap.

  13. “I’d like someone to provide a suggestion/some suggestions for how she should have dealt with “dybbuk.”

    I think that is a very good question and I don’t have any good answer only questions.

    I can’t resist pointing out that if she were behaving like some guys she might post his pictures on a revenge porn site, and his address and phone on Craig’s list.

    But she is an attorney so I think we can assume she would choose actions more in the establishment.

    My recollection is that some of his activity took place on her blog (or did I get that wrong). She could bar him from her site.

    It does appear he was stalking her from site to site and harassing her. Did his actions rise to the level they violated some law regarding harassment? Could she file some kind of charge against him?

    Could she get a court order for him to cease? Would a civil suit have a reasonable chance for success? Did his actions violate terms of service on the sites he used to harass her? Maybe she could get him barred from those sites as well.

    Is it possible his actions reflect on his work? She might have a chance getting his employer to take action against him.

    Finally, living well is the best revenge – unless you have an uncle Murray in Chicago who could break his legs. That is not a threat – I don’t have an uncle Murray living Chicago.

  14. annie,

    I know most of the people commenting here feel that Leong took the wrong approach in order to deal with her cyber harasser. I’d like someone to provide a suggestion/some suggestions for how she should have dealt with “dybbuk.”

  15. Elaine, I guess it must mean THEY want to turn us into MEN, ha! All that talk of women wanting to be the “same”, now it appears that it may be men who want women to act like men. How about we all act like human beings?

    It’s a good thing that women are not so easily distracted.

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