There is another controversy over the punishment of a teacher for statements made on his private time on social media. In this case, University of Sydney tutor Wu Wei, the business school’s head corporate finance tutor, used the pseudonym Pekojima and did not speak at a faculty member. However, his students found him out and exposed such statements like Wu calling Chinese students “pigs” (using the symbol “tun”) and accusing them of cheating “due to low IQs.” The comments appeared on the Chinese micro-blogging site Weibo and caused a firestorm.
One of the posts said “The Usyd finance course is very difficult, not sure how many international pigs will hire essay writer [sic] because of their low IQ.” There have long been allegations that mainland Chinese students used shadow writers to compete for grades or programs.
Wu’s supporters say that he was using coded political slang popular with dissidents online and is a leading political dissident who has long been targeted by the Communist regime.
His posting used the obscure character tun rather than zhu, the vastly more commonly used character for pig. Tun is described as a euphemism for guanerdai, the second-generation children of Communist Party officials.
Wu is himself a Chinese national when he became an Australian citizen and has posted a statement that “I would like to sincerely apologise for the inappropriate and disrespectful comments I made on the internet. I will refrain from such remarks in the future. I have also resigned from my employment at the University of Sydney.”
The intriguing part for me is that he used a pseudonym. If he did not comment in his own name or particularly associate the school, why isn’t this viewed as free speech by the university. This is particularly the case when Chinese activists have raised an alternative meaning to the posts. That is turn raises an issue similar to the mitior sensus doctrine in torts.
The mitior sensus doctrine requires that, when two or more interpretations of a word are possible, courts should accept the non-defamatory meaning. In Bryson v. News Am. Publs., 174 Ill. 2d 77; 672 N.E.2d 1207 (Ill. 1996), the Illinois Supreme Court considered a lawsuit over “the March 1991 edition of Seventeen magazine that referred to the plaintiff as a ‘slut’ and implied that she was an unchaste individual.” The Court applied the doctrine and noted that contemporary meaning must be considered in the use of the doctrine:
The defendants finally note that our appellate court has held that it is not defamatory per se to call a woman a slut. Roby v. Murphy, 27 Ill. App. 394 (1888). . . Roby was decided more than 100 years ago. It is evident that neither the law of defamation nor our use of language has remained stagnant for the last century. Terms that had innocuous or only nondefamatory meanings in 1888 may be considered defamatory today. See, e.g., Moricoli v. Schwartz, 46 Ill. App. 3d 481, 5 Ill. Dec. 74, 361 N.E.2d 74 (1977) (rejecting the defendant’s claim that the term “fag” should be innocently construed, because the dictionary definitions for that term included “cigarette” and “to become weary”; stating that the plaintiff “is a fag” amounted to a charge that the plaintiff was homosexual); Manale v. City of New Orleans, 673 F.2d 122 (5th Cir. 1982) (referring to the plaintiff, a fellow police officer, as “a little fruit” and “gay” falsely charged the plaintiff with homosexuality and was defamatory per se); Tonsmeire v. Tonsmeire, 281 Ala. 102, 199 So. 2d 645 (1967) (“affair” is commonly understood to mean unchastity rather than a platonic association).
At the time Roby was decided, Webster’s dictionary defined the term “slut” as “an untidy woman,” “a slattern” or “a female dog,” and stated that the term was “the same as bitch.'” Roby, 27 Ill. App. at 398. Apparently, when Roby was decided, none of the dictionary definitions of “slut” implied sexual promiscuity. Moreover, the Roby court found that, even in its “common acceptance,” the term “slut” did not amount to a charge of unchastity. Roby, 27 Ill. App. at 398.
We cannot simply assume that the term “slut” means the same thing today as it did a century ago. Many modern dictionaries include the definitions of the term “slut” cited in Roby, but add new definitions that imply sexual promiscuity. See, e.g., Webster’s New World Dictionary (2d Coll. ed. 1975) (“a sexually immoral woman”); American Heritage Dictionary 1153 (2d Coll. ed. 1985) (“[a] woman of loose morals” “prostitute”). Moreover, in the present age, the term “slut” is commonly used and understood to refer to sexual promiscuity. See Smith v. Atkins, 622 So. 2d 795 (La. App. 1993) (law professor called a female student a “slut” in class; appellate court found that term was libelous per se).
Both the intent to be anonymous and the claim of an alternative meaning of the key word in these postings raise free speech issues. The news reports indicate that the students were able to learn Wu’s identity but that he tried to conceal it. Do you believe that an academic writing (or trying to write) anonymously should be disciplined for such criticisms?