Sunday, October 03, 2004

Why the Hailey case matters

A quick note to explain something about the harassment of Utah State professor David Hailey that I don't think is understood fully about his now-controversial study:

The study is a piece of research in progress. Hailey has never promoted the study publicly. What you see is a professor's research project intended for students and colleagues at Utah State to comment upon and contribute to.

As Hailey told me today: "This was never intended for public consumption."

The study appears as part of the Utah State internal Web site for its Interactive Media Research Labs, which Hailey oversees. It includes a syllabus for students and some of the projects that will be discussed in the course, including the Bush Memo Study. It was only through distribution of its URL through Internet backchannels that Hailey's critics became aware of it.

In other words, they've barged into an ongoing college project and attempted to academically lynch its author for merely considering a hypothesis they believe to be heretical.

A couple of commenters in the thread below have pointed out the larger significance of all this. First, there was cs:
I for one am thrilled USU is considering legal action. In fact, I have long thought one thing celebrities -- often libeled with little to no legal recourse -- might do is create a foundation / endowment to finance legal battles against libel / slander for political ends against private individuals -- especially academics.

It seems to me Dr. Hailey's could be an interesting, perhaps precedent-making case. As academics frequently use the internet to disseminate draft articles and research, it seems difficult to argue that merely posting his hypothesis and study on a department website constitutes thrusting himself into the public eye in this controversy.

However, even if he were to be judge a Limited Public Figure in this instance, a charge of "actual malice" is not unprovable, especially if pre-trial investigations and /or discovery uncover politically interested linkages between website owners, surrogates and operatives / supporters of the Bush campaign.

The whole thing could get very, very dicey. One of the most effective ways of making the julies of the world think twice about harrassing real and imagined opponents on command -- again, especially in academia -- may be to force them to hire attorneys and face the consequences of their actions within the legal system.

Next came Sara:
In many respects this issue is a classic Academic Freedom and Intellectual Freedom issue with some consequence.

My hope is that AAUP will consider supporting this case should it mature in a significant way -- and here's why.

The essence of any field of academic research is the publication of the fruits of work for the purpose of allowing others with similar interests and knowledge to critique ongoing work -- and by critique, I do not mean smash up, misrepresent, or use as the basis for personal attacks. Critique means evaluate according to a generally accepted set of scientific or disciplinary rules. It is the core of the whole academic enterprise -- and the scientific one too.

It's one thing to publish properly founded dissent to someone else's work -- it is quite another to import into this process character assassinations, threats, political pressure on an employing agency, threats to collegues and all the rest. I hope the AAUP takes an interest and gets involved.

But I have a second concern -- and that's the need for strong support for the "public scholar" -- that is the individual with appropriate credentials and knowledge base who attempts to participate meaningfully in public debate. We've already seen cases where all sorts of negative political pressure is directed at scientists who engage in "popular distribution" of their work on things like Global Warming or the effectiveness of "abstinence only" sex ed programs (among others) -- where strong-arming researchers substitutes for legitimate topical discourse.

Incidentally, Dr. Hailey told me the study was short on explaining his methodology largely because it was simply an early working draft and he hadn't thought it necessary. He's planning on producing a paper in the next week or so detailing this aspect of the study, and I'll be posting the details here when they become publicly available.

No comments: