Librarians Shouldn’t Sue Librarians Over Speech

Update #5 3/25/2015 – Team Harpy retracts their allegations against Joe Murphy.

Update #4 11/3/2014 – Comments reopened. My blog is set to automatically close comments after two weeks. In my experience, the vast majority of comments on my blog posts older than two weeks tend to be spam. I don’t think that thinking applies to this case. Apologies to anyone who’s tried to comment here in the past week or so.

Update #3 10/29/2014 – Ms. Sarah Houghton, the Librarian in Black announced in two tweets today that she is coming forward in the #teamharpy suit:

As I have no idea of what her testimony will be, I will refrain from speculating what it will involve. I’ve only met her a few times and mostly know her from her writing and from that I will be inclined to believe what she says. I’m assuming this will only become known at trial.

Update #2 10/29/2014 – Mr. Joe Murphy has published a public statement in response to his lawsuit against Ms. Rabey and Ms. de jesus. I encourage you to read it because all along I’ve said he should engage publicly on this issue.

I continue to be believe that Murphy is misguided in pursuing this lawsuit, regardless of the merits of his case. Partly because after reading his statement, it still isn’t clear to me whether he engaged Rabey and de jesus publicly as I suggested that a librarian should below. His statement says:

I am in an unenviable position. As some have noted, filing a lawsuit should be a last resort. Engaging De Jesus and Rabey did not work. Asking them to retract their position and provide proof of their claims was met with sneers and further defamation. For those who asked why I did not try discussion first — I did.

The paragraph above is consistent with hiring an attorney and filing a cease and desist letter. This is still using the legal system to shut down speech. Potentially wrong and hateful speech, but in my personal opinion no worse than what President Obama has faced since day 1 of his presidency. Or your average celebrity.

If Mr. Murphy made a public effort to challenge Ms. Rabey and Ms. de jesus prior to seeking legal counsel, please leave a citation in comments.

Update #1 10/29/2014 – Library Journal has posted an article on this case and the comments section includes one from Mr. Murphy. I believe this may be his first comment on this issue. I’ve posted a comment too and encourage you to do the same — if you can keep it respectful and fact based.

======================Original Post=================

As many of you probably know, Joe H Murphy of Library Future is suing nina de jesus and Lisa Rabey (aka Team Harpy) over statements made about sexual harassment, including a May 2014 blog post. He is suing Ms. de jesus and Ms. Rabey for $1.25 million.

I do not have the information I need to evaluate the claims made about Mr. Murphy. I don’t know him personally and no one has confided in me one way or another. So I will not address those claims here. I will say that Team Harpy is seeking witnesses to document their allegations against Mr. Murphy.

What I can evaluate is the appropriateness of a librarian choosing to fight words with a lawsuit, particularly one making a $1.25 million lawsuit. I don’t find that appropriate at all. I find it so inappropriate that I’ve donated to the Team Harpy Legal Defense Fund and signed the petition for Mr. Murphy to stand down. I hope that some of you reading this will take one or both actions.

Why do I find Mr. Murphy’s legal actions so inappropriate?

  • It has a chilling effect on other reports of sexual harassment. Even if Team Harpy were making things up out of whole cloth, women who experience sexual harassment but haven’t recorded the whole thing on tape are going to be terrified of being sued into the streets because few harrassers are going to admit to their behavior. We need to make it easier to report harassment, not harder —  given incidents at tech conferences, the US Congress, and ALA itself.
  • As librarians, we’re supposed to believe that for the most part, the antidote to bad speech is more speech. I’ve looked up the Twitter and blog feeds for Mr. Joe Murphy and Library Future and to me it looks like he went dark in July and hasn’t made any statements about this issue except through his attorney. If you know of comments that Mr. Murphy has made on his behalf, point me to them and I’ll link them to this blog post. Before taking any fellow librarian to law court, you should go to the court of public opinion. Or stay quiet and let your behavior speak for itself.
  • People get called evil things all the time and manage not to sue. Have you seen President Obama sue a birther? How about all the celebrity rags talking about Michelle Obama, Hilary Clinton, George W. Bush and the Kardashians? Yet have thy sued? Heck, even Sarah Palin hasn’t been suing bloggers (as of this writing) despite the supposed faked birth stories, corruption allegations, and family brawls.

North America is over litigious as it is. And librarians are supposed to support free speech. We supposed to provide safe spaces to be and to have discussions, even passionate ones. We’re supposed to know better. We shouldn’t sue one another. We don’t have to join hands and sing — but we should be talking, blogging or tweeting without court involvement.

Now, my opinion would be different if Mr. Murphy were suing an organization that had fired him over what he felt to be unsubstantiated allegations. If he has been fired from a company or library as a result of Team Harpy’s blog posting and twittering, then he should totally sue — his former employer, not the bloggers. I don’t know if that would actually be possible in all states, but the employer would be doing him and themselves a disservice by not vetting the allegations.

But Team Harpy has no direct hold over Mr. Murphy’s livelihood. All they can do is appeal to the court of public opinion. They can’t fire him from his employers and by themselves they can’t bounce him from conferences.

While I think Mr. Murphy should stand down for the good of the profession and in the name of providing a safer environment for people to report harassment, I think that it would be in Mr. Murphy’s own best interest to stand down.

First, every day this case drags on means another day of libraryland discussion of what Mr. Murphy may or may not have done. Because he is the one seeking $1.25 million from two librarians of modest means, he will be seen as the Goliath in this matter regardless of the facts in this case. At best, he will be seen as someone using the courts to silence his critics, a luxury most of us can’t afford, even if we were inclined to do so. At worst, people will start believing the allegations regardless of whether witnesses begin to appear.

Additionally, I agree with the Annoyed Librarian that there are only four ways that this case can end and only two of these outcomes looks good for Mr. Murphy:

  1. Mr. Murphy loses in court – publicly confirmed as a sexual harasser – LOSS
  2. Mr. Murphy wins in court but loses in court of public opinion and is shunned – LOSS
  3. Mr. Murphy wins in court and people move on – WIN
  4. Mr. Murphy drops the case and apologizes for suing – WIN (In my view)

It seems like Mr. Murphy may be spending a lot of legal fees for what will essentially a coin toss. If he stays in the court route, it’s actually 2-1 against a positive outcome. He needs to not only win the case, but win it decisively enough that a majority of power brokers in libraryland believe he was the true victim in this case. Neither losing the case outright or “winning” under a dark cloud of social opinion will ensure a clear path for his career.

He should go for dropping the suit for the win. For himself and his profession. And to start building a comfort zone so we won’t have to judge anonymous allegations because people will feel free to come into the light and tell their stories.

Update 10/4/2014 – As of this writing, Mr. Murphy’s last tweet was 9/24 and not July as I originally implied. I stand by my remarks that an examination of his twitter feed and blog as of the writing of my original post show that he has not address the Team Harpy accusations through his social media channels. If you know otherwise, leave a URL in comments.

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3 Responses to Librarians Shouldn’t Sue Librarians Over Speech

  1. Brian Jacobs says:

    In your posting titled “Librarians Shouldn’t Sue Librarians Over Speech,” you enumerated four possible outcomes for Mr. Murphy. After that, you suggested that if he proceeded with litigation, two of those outcomes were adverse while only one was desirable, and so his odds of achieving a desirable outcome were two to one. I just wanted to point out that this is only true if each outcome is equally likely, which is an assumption that does not seem to be correct.

    If he believes both that the suit could be argued in court and that he can win the suit, then from his perspective his strongest play may very well be to hope that his legal victory is sufficient to protect him from other adverse consequences. Since he has not retracted the suit in light of community support, which seems from my (admittedly limited) outsider perspective to be sufficient to provide legal defense for the defendants, he very well may believe that he has a case sufficient to make pursuing it worth his while.

    While there might be external, community-based reasons for Mr. Murphy to step down and retract his suit, it seems to me that the claim that it is actually in his best interests to do is at best unsupported. Are there any reasons for him to do so which do not rely on the assumption that he is equally likely to achieve one of the three listed outcomes after a court case?

  2. Sarah says:

    How has your opinion of the outcome changed now that he has won his case, they’ve issued public apology for their statements and most people seem to have moved on and forgotten?

  3. Daniel Cornwall says:

    Hi Sarah, I still don’t believe that litigation was the answer here. Having said that, if Mr. Murphy did lose a job based on Team Harpy’s retracted and then unproven accusations, I think it should sue his former employer for damages if that is a remedy under law. The difference to me is that Team Harpy did not have direct control over his livelihood, but his employer did.

    Time will tell if public opinion gives Mr. Murphy the same verdict as the court. I’ve moved on and not blog further on this issue, in accordance with Team Harpy’s stated wishes and I assume, Mr. Murphy’s. In my view both Mr. Murphy AND Team Harpy have made it more difficult to responsibly detect and deal with sexual harassment in our profession.

Comments are closed.