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Today In Landmark First Amendment Cases

[ 40 ] March 13, 2012 |

A set of facts some readers may find amusing:

After he had obtained the signature page from his committee, Plaintiff inserted an additional, two-page section into his thesis without the knowledge or consent of his committee members. That section, entitled “Disacknowledgements,” began: “I would like to offer special Fuck You’s to the following degenerates for of being an ever-present hindrance during my graduate career….” It then identified the Dean and staff of the UCSB graduate school, the managers of Davidson Library, former California Governor Wilson, the Regents of the University of California, and “Science” as having been particularly obstructive to Plaintiff’s progress toward his graduate degree. Plaintiff later explained that he had not revealed the section to the members of his committee because he feared that they would not approve it.

[via Jacob]

Comments (40)

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  1. Pith Helmet says:

    Damn you, Science! Damn you to hell!

  2. Who would have thought that an engineer would be so prickly?

  3. Anonymous says:

    He gets an F for using the possessive instead of the plural. “Fuck you’s” =/= “fuck yous.”

    • John (not McCain) says:

      I’d give him an F for using “yous” instead of the far superior “y’all.” Not much of quality has come from the south other than that, hush puppies, and yours truly.

  4. rea says:

    I can sure think of less painful and less expensive means of self-destruction . . .

  5. ploeg says:

    Just another instance of The Man violating First Amendment rights by declining to provide somebody with that person’s chosen forum.

    Might I add that, if the committee really didn’t like the plaintiff, the committee would have let the plaintiff add the section and reap the consequences? (Granting that it would have been an interesting precedent to set, they probably could have figured out some way to add the section after the fact.)

  6. Paulk says:

    The dissent from the majority was interesting, but says a lot more about that judge than the case itself.

    It would appear that that particular judge never went to school—or at the very least has no understanding of the concept of “teaching.” By the standards Reinhardt adopts, it’s hard to imagine anything like “school” existing at all.

    But maybe that’s the point:

    “113 Judge Graber would have us adopt a First Amendment standard regarding the authority of public universities to limit the speech of graduate students that I believe to be wholly inappropriate — a standard that would seriously undermine the rights of all college and graduate students attending state institutions of higher learning.

    Really? So, requiring that people meet minimum professional standards in the conference of a degree in the field would stifle free speech?

    114 Even were the Hazelwood standard applicable to this case, I would vigorously disagree that a university’s decision to withhold a graduate student’s degree for almost a year, despite the fact that he has successfully completed his masters thesis and complied with all of the department’s other academic requirements, is a “reasonable” response to his attachment to his chemistry thesis of a one and a half page prefatory disacknowledgments section in which he caustically expresses his view that university and other public officials obstructed rather than aided his progress toward a graduate degree. Nor, in my opinion, is it a reasonable response to such expressive conduct for the university to exacerbate its retaliatory action by placing the offending graduate student on academic probation for the period during which his degree is being withheld, thus making him ineligible for a teaching or research position or for financial support.

    Clearly, someone who is utterly unfamiliar with a Thesis office or any of the hoops one must jump through to obtain a graduate degree. Ours won’t approve a thesis if you get one footnote wrong.

    115 The university’s extreme actions in response to Brown’s speech — speech that was highly critical of university and other public officials — raises a genuine question of material fact as to whether the university punished him because of the viewpoint he sought to express or whether, as the Judge Graber appears to believe, it simply desired to further a legitimate pedagogical concern. Thus, a genuine issue of fact as to the university’s extreme actions exists even if, as I willingly assume for purposes of this dissent, the university had the right to refuse to file Brown’s thesis in the library archives as long as he insisted that it not be filed without the hostile disacknowledgments. Summary judgment was therefore wholly inappropriate.

    Does this strike anyone else as 100% backwards? The student failed to follow the directives for his project and ignored suggested remedies and it’s the university that is punishing him? The fact that they ultimately approved his thesis despite the fact that he didn’t do what every other grad student does was one of the most generous acts of kindness I’ve seen a committee commit.

    It’s such a relief to know that we have these kinds of luminaries on the bench, likely for life—if not on the Supreme Court some day.

    • Ben says:

      Not saying I agree with him, but it’s not like he’s arguing to find in favor of the plaintiff. He’s arguing against granting summary judgment, and with first amendment issues I’d rather judges be more willing to go to trial instead of less.

      That said, it seems like it was the right decision to grant summary judgment against the guy who hates Science. But I’m not all that worried around judges who tread lightly around the first amendment.

      • Richard says:

        Having this go to jury trial on the question of whether this was a First Amendment violation would have been a monumental waste of judicial resources. And what if the jury had found that it was a violation? Then you would have had an appeal. Reinhardt’s opinion is just nuts – this isn’t close to being an arguable First Amendment violation.. That said, the chance of Reinhardt getting appointed to the Supreme Court is absolutely nil since he’s the most liberal judge on the Ninth Circuit and is the most reversed judge of anyone on the Court of Appeals

      • Paulk says:

        I was fine with his objection…until he started trying to offer this as any kind of defense. The fact that the other two judges do not agree upon the specific reason could be a good argument, though the two positions are not actually mutually exclusive, and the second appears more to be objecting that the silliness of the complaint would even go as far as the first.

        But if you are going to argue that there is reasonable cause to believe that these First Amendment arguments might be upheld, it would help if you could offer an even moderately plausible justification for that position.

        No fair reading of this case could conclude that the school punished the student in any way, unless you consider it a student’s right to not have to follow the rules that are indisputably non-discriminatory. Stupid, yes. But we all live and die by them. As I said, the fact that they conferred the degree upon him at all despite his refusal, after following the appeals procedure and losing, to meet these easy requirements because he wanted to make a point, serves as the most obvious and complete rebuttal of his entire argument.

        I’m quite sure the committee wanted to fluke his ass after the way he treated them. Heck, I wanted them to.

        • Ben says:

          Alls I’m sayin’ is that I don’t see this as an issue worthy of making “oy this is who’s on the bench, for life no less” jokes out of.

          Judges have to make decisions about the idiosyncratic behavior of all kinds of groups and organizations, most of which they have no firsthand knowledge of. I’d rather they err on the side of a broader sense of the first amendment than on a narrower one.

          It would have been silly, Richard, for this particular case to have gone to an actual jury deliberation, you’re right. I just don’t think the judge deserves condemnation for arguing against summary judgment.

          • Paulk says:

            I tend toward ridicule here not because of his conclusion, but because his justification is transparently silly and shows not even the slightest attempt to contemplate the logical implications of his argument.

            It’s precisely the kind of narrowness of logic that leads to faulty conclusions all the time. I happen to be a very big First Amendment proponent—and fairly strongly liberal on most issues. Having someone making these kinds of ill-considered arguments in the performance of their job speaks very poorly of their suitability and, frankly, does the causes I care about far more harm than good.

      • But he’s considering the 1st amendment rights of the student as if faculty have no discretion beyond a rubber-stamp, as if “finishing” the thesis constituted successful completing the degree. If that standard held, anyone with a 1st draft could just declare themselves done and demand their degree.

        That’s what I found disturbing: this is not a free speech case in the broad sense. It’s an academic freedom case, and in those cases there are always balancing rights to consider, which Reinhardt didn’t.

  7. J. Otto Pohl says:

    Although it is probably more prudent to not say anything or just note the people that helped you, I do not see anything wrong with the idea of disacknowledgements. In fact while it undoubtedly angers the people dissed it is in fact a lot less vicious than a lot of academic writing. It also unlike peer review, usually the most vicious academic writing, does not hide behind anonymity. It would be nice to see more civility in American academia. But, even compared to the comments on this blog, the disacknowledgements cited above are pretty mild. I do not see any compelling reason to prevent him from having a disacknowledgement page in front of his thesis.

    • rea says:

      There are acctually not very many examples of commentors or posters saying, “Fuck you” to each other on this blog.

    • Warren Terra says:

      The signature page on my thesis just says the signatories believe I’ve met the degree requirements (and the version they read did not, I believe, contain my Acknowledgments, which were in any case extensive and positive). But that was the standard page at my institution. It’s worth pointing out something stressed in the linked court document: the signature page at UCSB says “This Thesis of Christopher Brown is approved.” (italics in the court document). The signatories have signed off not only on the research but also on the resulting Thesis. They have every right not to have their signatures, their signs of approval, appended to a document inconsistent with their expectations.

      • dave says:

        I agree with this. However, would this case have ended up in Court if he had instead included an “acknowledgments” section after the fact, which was full of inoffensive praise towards the same individuals?

        • Paulk says:

          Of course not. As the filings make plain, kissing butt is, in fact, a perfectly appropriate academic exercise. (This is also strategic, in both dissertations and in published academic work.)

          That’s pretty much irrelevant, though. The question isn’t whether they liked what he wrote or not. (I’d bet, not.) Is it entirely inappropriate to include this in his document? Absolutely. Was it intellectually dishonest to deceive his committee and the university to include it in his thesis? Likely.

          Sneaking in a complementary section would have been inappropriate, but also would not have violated professional standards. We’re going to now pretend that being too nice to people is exactly the same as insulting them.

          I think this is a special new understanding of the First Amendment, akin to the idea that it makes one free from criticism for those ideas. In this instance, a student can modify an assignment and thumb his or her nose at the established procedures (and remedies) offered by a institution because he wants to piss all over people. What an awesome idea! We’d destroy academic freedom NOT to do that!

    • djw says:

      There was some book I read in grad school that had a prickly sort of disacknowledgement section. The gist of it was “no funding agency or professional colleagues thought this project was worthwhile. I thank my wife and family.” I wish I could remember what that was…

      • SEK says:

        Mark McGurl’s introduction to The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James was funny enough for me to remember it being funny, but alas! Amazon’s preview skips over it.

      • ajay says:

        Tom Holt dedicated one of his novels to his mother, with the words: “Without whose ever-present support and encouragement (to the detriment of her own considerable talents as a writer) I would now be the son and heir of a best-selling authoress, instead of just another penniless author”.

        • Hogan says:

          One of P.G. Wodehouse’s novels was dedicated “To my daughter Leonora without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.”

  8. Rockville says:

    I chuckled when I saw Pete Wilson listed. Because yes, former California Governor Pete Wilson has been a hindrance to many.

  9. Emily68 says:

    I was a worker bee for many years in the Graduate School of another big university. If we’d know about this case, it would have caused lots of discussion and amusement.

  10. [...] * After he had obtained the signature page from his committee, Plaintiff inserted an additional, two-page section into his thesis without the knowledge or consent of his committee members. That section, entitled “Disacknowledgements,” began: “I would like to offer special Fuck You’s to the following degenerates for of being an ever-present hindrance during my graduate career….” It then identified the Dean and staff of the UCSB graduate school, the managers of Davidson Library, former California Governor Wilson, the Regents of the University of California, and “Science” as having been particularly obstructive to Plaintiff’s progress toward his graduate degree. Plaintiff later explained that he had not revealed the section to the members of his committee because he feared that they would not approve it. Today in Landmark First Amendment Cases. [...]

  11. Snarki, child of Loki says:

    Well, it’s completely justified that this guy got slapped down. He violated traditional academic norms in a serious and blatant manner.

    Doesn’t he know that standard practice is to bury comments like that in the FOOTNOTES?

    Sheesh! What are they teaching the kids these days?

  12. Thers says:

    However, UCSB deserves to lose handily for referring to Strunk & White, a book which is kind of dopey, as a standard style guide.

    (Sorry.)

    • c u n d gulag says:

      Since I’ve been using Strunk & White for decades, can I sue them because what I write is often dopey?

  13. Lurker says:

    You know, the idea that a university could be sued at all for a case like this is a breach of academic freedom. Where I come from (Finland), the decision of the university on the grading can only be appealed to a university’s own appeals committee. No court would have jurisdiction over the university’s final decision, nor any tort claims could be raised using that as a basis.

    The university, as institution, is the embodiment of academic freedom. Its decisions pertaining to the academics subjects cannot be questioned by any outside body. That would be a breach of academic freedom.

    • mpowell says:

      I wonder if this is even true in Finland. Either way, this leaves open the possibility of truly absurd abuses of power and in the US, the legal system is always held as a final remedy against such things. Perhaps this is more necessary in the US given the history of discrimination here.

      • Lurker says:

        Actually, in Finland, decisions of public officials are subject to a different court system: the administrative courts. This is typical in Europe; e.g Germany and France have similar systems.

        The administrative court hears appeals on the decisions of public bodies, including schools and universities. However, by law, they are forbidden to take any case relating to the grading or acceptance of a university degree or course. The appeals committee of the university is defined by law as the supreme stage of judiciary for these cases.

        Of course, one can file a tort claim in general court system, but that kind of case would be considered frivolous.

        The backstop against misuse of this considerable power of the university is the ombudsman system, where a person who feels aggrieved can take their cause to a neutral third party, who decides whether to rise charges against the officials.

    • rea says:

      I don’t know how the judiciary in Finland works, but in the US you can be sued for just about anything–just not successfully. I’m not sure how you’d establish a workable system that screened cases pre-filing for merit.

  14. dsn says:

    In the opposite direction of this, my friend’s adviser edited his thesis acknowledgements because she felt he had not credited her enough.

  15. Turkle says:

    My favorite “Disacknowledgements” section was at the beginning of e. e. cummings’ No Thanks, for those who remember that one.

  16. Roger Ailes says:

    The “for of” is a nice touch.

    How can you trust a student who doesn’t proofread his own Fuck Yous?

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