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A Twitter thread sparked a lawsuit against Nieman Lab’s founder (cjr.org)
118 points by giuliomagnifico 2 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 297 comments






What someone does legally, without harming or threatening anyone else, in their private life outside of their job, should have little to zero impact on their ability to maintain employment. I hope her lawsuit is very successful. She was clearly targeted, ostracized, and fired for speaking her mind. I don’t agree with her statement, but academia is poisoning free speech under the guise of righteousness.

But her lawsuit is against the Neiman Lab, not her employer, so it wouldn’t have any bearing on what you’re saying? If anything it feels kind of telling that she’s suing the organisation that named her instead of the organisation that fired her.

IMO at the very least the case is a lot more nuanced than you're making it out to be. For example: the fired professor was propagating conspiracy theories about Seth Rich. From the free speech angle, sure, she's free to say whatever she wants. But if you're a journalism professor and you aren't able to tell when something being propagated in the media is a baseless conspiracy theory, what does that say about your ability at your job? And as a teacher? It is not flat out wrong to fire someone for engaging in actions that cast doubt on their professionalism. At the very least it's open for debate.

I think there's an interesting debate to be had over her having done this anonymously: if she separated it from her professional persona is she less culpable in a professional sense? Personally I'd still argue no, but I think this is why she's targeting the Lab and not her employer: it's a lot easier to argue that unmasking her (thus combining her anonymous and professional identities) was wrong than to argue that firing her was wrong.

It seems their argument is going to be centered around one particular post expressing an anti-Muslim sentiment. Benton said she wrote it, she said she did not, thus he defamed her. All the posts were made under the same Disqus account so she might have a hill to climb in proving that it wasn't her. I'm very far from a lawyer but this feels like a case designed to set the professor up as a cause célèbre on the right rather than one designed to win.


She's suing Nieman Lab because she claimed they lied about what she actually said.

Yes, I'm sure she would love to sue the university too. However she likely doesn't have a case there.

I hope she wins the lawsuit because they sloppily doxxed her and broke the terms of service of Disqus in doing so.

> Viola acknowledged writing most of the posts. But she denied being behind the anti-Muslim screed. That was critical to Sorokin’s decision to allow the libel and defamation part of Viola’s suit to proceed. The former professor “has plausibly alleged that Benton may have been negligent in his failure to verify that she was the author,” the judge wrote. He also took note of how Benton managed to discover and reveal her identity. Viola wrote her comments “based on the promise that her user information would be used for ‘moderation purposes only,’ which was violated when Benton posted her information on Twitter,” Sorokin wrote.


"sloppily doxxing" is not the standard for defamation in the US. In many cases, the standard amounts to "actual malice", which means pretty much that she'd have the prove the defendants KNEW she did not write said screed.

Have you considered that if the standard for defamation were actually as you hope it is/should be, she'd get about a microsecond to enjoy her victory over Nieman Lab before being crushed by Seth Rich's family over her rumormongering in that case?


That's not the standard, which is why the judge allowed it to move forward. It's literally mentioned in the article.

Being sloppy is indeed enough to be sued. If I started telling people "microtherion is a Nazi" - you could sue me without proving I knew you are not a Nazi.


> the judge allowed it to move forward

… on a Motion to Dismiss, which means literally "if we take everything the plaintiff says as the gospel truth, and dismiss anything the defendant says, would the plaintiff have a case?"

> It's literally mentioned in the article.

The judge allowed some of the numerous claims to proceed to the next trial stage, while dismissing others outright.

If you follow the article's link to the ruling, you will find that actual malice is literally the standard applied to many of the counts, which were indeed dismissed at the Motion to Dismiss stage: "mere negligence or deviation from professional standards is insufficient to allege actual malice".

Whether that standard applies to the libel charge depends on whether the plaintiff is a public figure, which apparently in that state is never decided in the Motion to Dismiss stage. However, the next step is generally a Motion for Summary Judgment, and odds are good that she will be found a (Limited, at least) public figure, at which point the Libel, Defamation, Emotional Distress, and Tortious Interference counts are history.

> you could sue me

Anyone could sue anyone for anything. Would I win? I doubt it.


Yes, but I was responding to this quote by the OP:

> I hope her lawsuit is very successful. She was clearly targeted, ostracized, and fired for speaking her mind.

Those two statements have no connection to each other, since the lawsuit has nothing to do with her being targeted, ostracized and fired, instead (as you say) it's about her being defamed.


yeah but the organization she is suing was the cause of revealing her identity, leading to her being targeted, ostracized and fired.

actually maybe the targeted is in reference to Nieman.

I guess I see not a legal connection, but the kind of connection that people often make in informal speech.


Is violating a website or platforms' ToS grounds for a third parties to sue you?

I believe the potential grounds are libel, not any TOS violation.

Doxxing isn't illegal.

… and this is not a criminal case, but a civil one.

Doxxing is not a civil violation either. There is nothing wrong with doxxing people.

Civil and Criminal violations are not the only things that are wrong.

For good reason, many wrong things are completely legal, and still should be condemned.


Of course, but that's not the case here. Doxxing this woman made Temple a better place to learn, and hopefully it made some people think twice before posting racist comments. I think this was the perfect outcome.

Did it make Temple a better place to learn? How can you know that? Was anyone having problems with her before? Is academia's march towards a highly policed speech environment a good thing for students? Even marginalized students?

> Did it make Temple a better place to learn? How can you know that?

If you are a journalism professor and are unable to recognise disinformation when you see it (e.g. Seth Rich conspiracy theories) then it calls your job competency into serious question. Yes, the firing would make Temple a better place to learn.


I saw one of the most accomplished physicists in the world unable to solve a (hard) first year Physics problem in Office Hours. He did it three times and got three different wrong answers, threw the chalk down and walked away and asked us to come back tomorrow. Does that mean he’s not qualified for his job?

Eh yes?

He was one of the three best teachers of any subject that I've ever had.

By what metric is academia marching towards a highly policed speech environment, though? I think that’s a line of attack against academia that has been parroted for decades, by referencing anecdotes such as this news story, while ignoring less newsworthy forces pushing in the opposite direction.

What are the forces pushing in the opposite direction? If you look at what happened to Erika Christakis or Bret Weinstein (try to ignore everything that Weinstein has become since then) it's hard to say that academia is not more highly policed than previously. Of course in some ways this is good, in that I recall some professors mercilessly ridiculing some students in front of the whole class, and of course professors having sex with some students which was always terrible but had no consequences until a few years ago.

This depends on exactly what you mean, but you can equally look at Nicole Hannah Jones for either the "reverse", or for an example of speech policing, but by the "other side".

> try to ignore everything that Weinstein has become since then

I feel like this is difficult to do. I'd sort of argue that "we caught a bad faith actor early" is a good thing. Maybe you could argue that Bret wouldn't be what he is today if he weren't fired, but I don't really find that convincing.


Please explain “marginalized students”.

They violated Disqus's terms of service, which is a civil violation.

I'm pretty sure violating the TOS isn't a civil violation.

It's a violation of the TOS. The recourse is Disqus cuts the offender's access (either the individual or the institution) for violating the TOS.


Sure but it’s not Disqus that is filing the suit. I’d be surprised if she has standing to claim damages based on an agreement she was not a party to.

The article explains she is suing for defamation. Google explains defamation has four elements:

1) a false statement purporting to be fact (he says she wrote what she says she didn't)

2) publication or communication of that statement to a third person (yes, the doxing)

3) fault amounting to at least negligence (maybe debatable, but he accused her of writing something knowing only that an account registered to her posted it. He never asked her about it and has already admitted fault in accusing her without asking.)

4) damages (yes, her career)


Sure, you can complain about that. But you said she was sloppily doxxed, which doesn't really seem to be the case. She was properly doxxed.

Not according to the lawsuit, she claims she didn’t make some of the comments. If that is true, then it was sloppy.

A. K. A. Freedom of speech isn't freedom from consequences.

Can you define what free speech would be then? How exactly is that not just an idiotic paradox?

Exercising free speech can have social consequences. You're free to advocate for the legalization of necrophilia; others are free to criticize you and disagree with you (exercising their own free speech) or shun you (exercising their freedom of association).

Legal consequences imply non-free speech; employment consequences are more complicated.

edit: Responding to dead response; not gonna vouch for you again with that attitude...

Every freedom has consequences. You've got the right to bear arms, but you can shoot yourself in the foot. You've got the freedom to move about the country, but you can miss your sister's wedding if you're in another state. You've got the freedom to vote, but your elected politician won't always vote in the way you'd like. You've got the right to drink and smoke, but you might get cancer or other diseases. You've got the right to piss off your friends by spouting off hot takes, and you might lose those friends if they don't like what you have to say.


But we aren't talking about necrophilia. It is about people who may work in an environment that is 95% Democrat being attacked as racists or whatever because they have a different political view.

The issue isn't exactly about free speech but discrimination. And this happens in a million other ways too: being overweight, having a certain accent, being shorter than average. The fact that people have to resort to a "free speech" defence is indicative of the problem. And, of course, there will be "consequences"...no-one doubts that are consequences for not being like other people.


One of the alleged opinions, "deport all Muslims," advocates for discrimination. As I said, employment consequences are complicated, and that's especially true when the employer is a public school. But, that isn't just a "different political view," it's evidence that you're predisposed towards... discrimination. If you make such statements in public, and you interview and don't hire a qualified Muslim who applies for a job at your place of employment, you've provided that applicant ammunition for a discrimination lawsuit. For that reason, it behooves a company to fire employees who make such statements in public.

I don't believe that is what she said. You are making the point that I say should be avoided: you believe she said one thing, so that must make her an X, and Xs are dangerous...you have no idea.

And if someone is discriminating against another person in hiring (btw, inevitable...height/weight/accent, it is basically impossible to remove this, people are fairly safe on religion because no-one can tell what religion another person is without asking) then that is enough. There is no need to examine the person's statements and try to work out how they would behave in a hypothetical example (doing this is discriminating...you aren't judging a person on their actions but how you believe they would act in a hypothetical you invent...would you like to be judged this way?).


> I don't believe that is what she said. You are making the point that I say should be avoided: you believe she said one thing, so that must make her an X, and Xs are dangerous...you have no idea.

No, please read my comment more carefully, because I said none of that.

I don't believe that she did or didn't say anything. I said "alleged" and meant it -- I've read exactly one article about this person and never heard of her before.

I said that having a post like that under one's name could be used as evidence against their employer in the case of a Title VII claim. Not that it would definitely indicate that the poster is racist; not that the poster is "dangerous" -- I'm said that the poster could reasonably be viewed as a legal liability to their employer.

> you aren't judging a person on their actions but how you believe they would act in a hypothetical you invent...would you like to be judged this way?

Another example of non-free speech: if you admit to having done a crime, that will be used against you in court (note, the admission itself is not a crime -- but it is evidence). If you express intent to do a crime, and somebody alleges that the same crime happened, and you're placed at the scene of the alleged crime, then your expression of intent will be used against you in court. Whether or not I want that to happen to me is irrelevant. That's how the legal system works.


Political party is a personal choice and thus not a protected class.

Freedom of association permits us to choose who we do and do not associate with based on that individual's own choices.


In many jurisdictions, political affiliation/activity is protected. [1] It looks like PA has had a couple cases on the matter, one offering protection and a more recent one limiting the first case to its facts (i.e., saying it is not precedential anymore). Details on page 319.

1: https://www2.law.ucla.edu/volokh/empspeech.pdf


Somewhat ironically California considers political affiliations a protected class.

I am not talking about protected classes (a concept which only exists in the US, and therefore isn't useful generally). The point is about discrimination, which will occur irregardless of what laws you pass.

You don't have to talk about politics at work. Heck, you may have even heard never to bring up politics or religion. Because of consequences.

Yes, that is my point. This is just another way for people to discriminate against people who aren't "on their team". It is why civil organizations, like the Freemasons, don't allow people to talk about politics or religion. Just personally, I am not sure why other people are interested either.

Freedom of speech means that you can express any opinion civilly in a public forum without being persecuted for such speech. It does not mean you won’t get fired for saying something racist, and importantly it means that there are restrictions on speech that are not opinions or expressed civilly, such as the famous “yelling fire in a crowded theater” example.

Yelling fire in a crowded theater is protected under the first amendment. That phrase came out of a 1919 SCOTUS ruling[0]. The limitations on speech were slowly restored over the next 50 years, with Brandenburg v Ohio[1] (1969) ultimately blocking making speech illegal.

The important distinction is that you can be punished under the law for the intent + consequences of speech. For the fire example, if no one reacted at all to me yelling "Fire!", the state could not go after me. Now, if I caused a stampede or other behavior from those in the theater, I could be sued for various things (manslaughter if someone died, criminal mischief, or disturbing the peace).

It's also the same reason the government can go after mob bosses for hiring a hitman to kill someone. They just said something (like, "take that guy out"), which is just speech. But if the actions that resulted in the speech can be directly connected, you can get in trouble for it.

EDIT: To make clear here, intent and consequences matter here. It's why you rarely see cases against speech brought, as intent must also be clear and provable in court.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schenck_v._United_States

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brandenburg_v._Ohio


Then go to a theater and yell “Fire” and see how it goes. You’ll be arrested.

Prosecuted, no. Persecuted? You certainly might be.

Which would be others exercising their freedom of speech as well, or in the case of her employer, freedom of association.

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.


Speech is meaningless if it has zero consequences. Freedom of speech isn't absolute. I don't necessarily think freedom of speech should necessarily be the most important consideration if other important values are involved.

It's about Government's ability to restrict or punish free speech, for example, by making you disappear (e.g. China per Hong Kong and Uighur brainwashing, Saudi Arabia bone-sawing journalists).

There can be, and are, private consequences to speech. I may not invite you back for dinner for example, other consequences may be more impactful.


>"For example: the fired professor was propagating conspiracy theories about Seth Rich."

That the COVID virus leaked from a lab was branded as a conspiracy theory - until now all of the sudden it isn't.

Censorship is a "cure" far worse than the problems it purports to fix. Even worse is using such flimsy pretexts to FIRE someone.

That people are so casual in accepting ruining peoples live's for simply having the wrong GROUPTHINK is utterly mind boggling to myself. Sadly the "smarter" one seems to think they are the more susceptible they seem to be in rationalizing away any concerns that should be firing off in their little heads.

Those ignorant of history doomed to repeat it and all that :(


I'm sympathetic to this point of view, but the effect of social media is that people are effectively speaking into a bullhorn for the whole world to hear. Once they've done so it's hard to keep that out of work.

Let's say someone, call them Frank, expresses on twitter that he thinks women aren't fit for work outside the home and his coworkers discover he said this. At the very least, Frank's female coworkers will almost certainly not feel comfortable working with him anymore knowing his opinions. They're unlikely to believe he respects them, and since they don't believe that they likely won't want to collaborate with him. If Frank's work requires collaboration (as most does), he's now hamstrung himself at work.

From the employer's perspective: Frank is now less effective at work. Frank's coworkers who are uncomfortable may try to leave teams Frank is on, or avoid work that might force them to collaborate with Frank. The result is organizational chaos and Frank becomes a drag on the company.

The natural response here, I think, is to let Frank go. It's hard to avoid it because there aren't just social pressures to fire him, but economic ones.

The above isn't a thought experiment, I've watched more than one version of the above happen. I just don't really see how this separation can be maintained.


Except in this case, Frank used a pseudonym and the only reason why Franks's coworkers feel uncomfortable is because a Twitter admin outed Frank and alleged Frank said things on other platforms that Frank denies having said.

Frank has no right to anonymity. If someone wants to tell all his coworkers what he said they have just as much right as Frank does to say those things.

And to face the consequences for that speech, such as the lawsuit that is the subject of this article.

I think there are real societal costs to encouraging the removal of anonymity, especially using less than ethical methods and more especially when it causes real harm to people. In this case it was perhaps just losing a job, but often it results in significant risks of real physical harm.


> and his coworkers discover he said this.

how and why?

we all hold crazy opinions. as long as “Frank” has a proven record of successfully working with women, what exactly is the problem? throughout my career i’ve been working with some crazy individuals. their opinions were expressed in non office settings. then at work they were basically the antithesis of what they were preaching in private.

the gist is easy to understand: as long as your opinions don’t affect your work, why should anything like this matter?


> > and his coworkers discover he said this.

> how and why?

My post specifically mentions how social media makes this difficult, so that's one way. Rumor is another, but that has existed for as long as we've had workplaces and has not had the same effects, so I presume most people are worried about, again, social media.

> as long as “Frank” has a proven record of successfully working with women, what exactly is the problem?

Feelings are not always rational, knowing he holds those opinions will make many people viscerally uncomfortable and they will act on it. Whether you think they should react that way, people do, moralizing the issue doesn't solve it. If you disagree with that, I don't think it's a difference we can resolve here.

I also think whether Frank has had a proven record of successfully working with women isn't something we can know, and I think others share this view. For example if Frank is in a hiring position he may have passed on female candidates because of his views, or he may not have. No one can verify the details. Frank knows we can't verify the details. Frank may only be acting on his views when he's confident no one can credibly accuse him.

This all sounds overwrought, but people really do get caught in these game theory thought experiment quagmires wondering whether Frank or someone like him have or will hurt someone and decide "I don't want to deal with this person". Which leads back to the social dysfunction I described above.


I think the difference here is that in this case, there is a tangible record of what was said outside of work, rather than a story about how someone said something outside of work. I'm sure there are countless examples of employees wishing that whatever their crazy coworker said after work was recorded or written down somewhere so they could report it, but that wasn't the case until social media came along and gave everyone a chance to post things online. In the example, Frank probably wouldn't have kept a written record of his opinions precisely because he knew it'd probably get him in trouble if anyone else found it.

This doesn't really answer your question of "why does it matter," but I bet that if some of the crazy individuals you worked with had posted their opinions somewhere that people could see them, they would have been fired too.


> how and why?

Someone on twitter tells them?


This is maybe a fallacy since very few men actually think women shouldn’t work outside the house. A lot of men (and women) think women would be happier in the home than working. There’s also psychological and sexual dynamics in play with submissiveness vs assertiveness required to be competitive.

And that our culture of 2 income households and every woman wants to be in STEM to build ad products is a flawed concept. We want all genders to be technically competent but we want a resilient, self sufficient world, that doesn’t have to ‘capitalize’ on every human ambition/potential.

Except we live in a world where me saying that makes me sexist. And worthy of doxxing.


You’re completely missing his point. Think in generalities, the specifics of his example.

> in their private life outside of their job

Sure, I'll agree if the comments were stated in a private setting and limited to a group which knew each other. Unfortunately this is not that. This is analogous to a person standing in the middle of a market square with a megaphone and a hood over them to hide their identity.

Given that, it is only natural for the people who are opposed to the person's views to want to know who that person is in case that is a person who they interact in real-life and might be in a position of influence.

This applies to any kind of opinion and not just right leaning.

BTW, if we want to allow them to have their free speech, doesn't free speech protect the other side too, Neiman Lab in this case? If the opinions expressed by the person deserve protection, the right of others to investigate and present their findings should also be preserved.


Investigate?

He wasn't investigating. He was canceling somebody who criticized him.

In violation of his own promises both to Disqus and to the woman whose job he destroyed.


Lets be explicit about what happened here.

A) A journalist brought light to the comments made by a journalism professor.

B) Said journalism professor's employer chose to fire her for those comments.

Now, I think there is little room for taking issue with point A. If we're at the point where Journalists can't discuss the views of people in their own space, I have very little hope for a future environment of open and honest discourse.

On point B, I think there are many views people can hold which justify firing someone. The only question is where you draw the line. If an employee was actively spreading hateful messaging concerning a coworker in their own time, away from work, I think most people would agree firing that person is an acceptable course of action (I understand that wasn't the case here).

I also think there are a great number of people that believe pushing hateful discourse, even on your own time means that you are unfit for the workplace given that those views aren't conducive to a healthy work environment.

In this case they were pushing some rather racist discourse. They said in response to an article about Muslims "Scum. Deport them. They hate us. Get rid of them."

Obviously the point where you draw the line on acceptable discourse is in degrees, with active harrassment/hate of coworkers on one end, active hate towards a general group in the middle, and some kinds of conspiracism on the other. Where you draw the line is open for discussion, but lets not pretend it's not acceptable to have a line at all.

EDIT:

Other people are pointing out that Joshua doxxed Francesca using priveleged information from their Disqus platform. While I think that's condemnable, I find it largely immaterial to how Francesca's employer chooses how to react.


I'd argue that someone who talks like that needs to be fired from their position. She was a professor at a State owned college, there are certainly muslim students, professors and staff there. What kind of horrible hostile work environment would you be engendering if you let someone like that stay on staff?

There was an activist professor at a university in Colorado [mr Churchill, I believe] who used to say some foul things about some people --but said it in sympathy to native Americans.

He said the US deserved 9-11 and so on.

This professor was protected by the university in spite of calls to have him fired because they said the university needs diverse voices, even if they are violent and they would protect his 1A rights...

Things have changed...


I don't remember it that way. He did say the US deserved 9-11, and called people who worked in the World Trade Center "little Eichmanns".

But his essay was kind of ignored until 2005. Then CU Boulder investigated him for academic misconduct and fired him. The committee concluded it wasn't serious enough to fire him, and he later successfully sued the university for firing him. Media was reporting on his firing as having major free speech implications.

Academic misconduct should be punished. But to me it looks like one of the major motivations for his firing was his extremely offensive comments.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ward_Churchill#Activism_on_Nat...


> Things have changed...

Let me get this straight: someone who expressed hateful left-leaning political opinions was _not_ fired, and then later someone who expressed hateful right-leaning political opinions _was_ fired? What changed, exactly?


I think there was more willingness to defend these kinds opinions on principle based on the 1A and, importantly, defending someone on principle wasn't conflated with supporting that PoV. But now that is no longer the case. Now people claim that there are exceptions and also that while the 1A exists, it does not protect individuals from repercussions (job loss) even if state jobs.

I think that is a significant shift (even if yes, we do see a free pass for the likes of Sarah Jeong[1] for example.

[1]https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-45052534


I agree with you that there's been a shift in general attitudes towards freedom of speech. I disagree with you regarding where that opinion has shifted. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it sounds like you view this shift as occurring "across the board". I don't think that's the case. To me it seems that left-leaning people have shifted into very pro-censorhip views (against anyone who disagree with them), while right-leaning people have not shifted into pro-censorship views. You have now provided 2 examples of people who have (arguably) spewed hateful rhetoric, but didn't face harsh consequences for their actions. Both of those examples are left-leaning people. It does not strike me at all surprising that these left-leaning people were not censored, because the pro-censorship movement appears to be facilitated exclusively by people on the left, and of course they're not going to censor their own.

I think that's correct. There is less acceptance of free speech if it's "alt-right" than if the speech is coming from the "alt-left". I agree.

It's frightful to see that defending the 1A on principle is seen as an endorsement of objectionable views.


It's more that defending the spirit of the first amendment only on principle is seen as being disconnected from reality and ignoring the effectiveness of rhetoric in eroding the rights of vulnerable populations.

> In her suit, Viola acknowledged writing most of the posts. But she denied being behind the anti-Muslim screed.

Most of the rest of it seems like bog-standard US political polarisation, and if she didn't write the bigoted stuff…


So she wrote all of the borderline bad things under her unique account, but not the really bad things. Sure. Let's give her that benefit of the doubt.

> under her unique account,

It's Disqus; it doesn't work like that. Anyone can use any username.

> So she wrote all of the borderline bad things

I like them as much as you do (possibly less), but a large proportion of the US population has been radicalised in this way. It's not so cut and dry as I'd like these situations to be. (I'd delete that kind of thing if I were moderating, though; that's an obvious thing to do.)


> It's Disqus; it doesn't work like that. Anyone can use any username.

https://help.disqus.com/en/articles/1717153-registering-a-co...


> Note that usernames are only for login and moderation purposes, and you have the option to display a different name with your comments after you have finished registering.

Is this what they were referring to?


Nah, this part:

> Usernames must be unique and can only be registered by one commenter at a time. If you are seeing this message, it means your desired username is already taken, and you should try registering a different name.

The journalist didn't just google that username and assume everything he read was from her or something, he simply clicked on her linked account in the Disqus system and read/screenshot what else she posted. She's obviously lying when she said that the racist comments, but only the racist ones were written by someone else.


Not clear. Suppose she has a spouse, roommate, son, friend, etc who uses the same computer and since her account is automatically logged in, comments from the same account.

If she could bring someone who would say "Yes, I wrote that on her account" or show that the time of the comment she was teaching or something - I think that would be pretty compelling.


I think they were referring to the guest commenting option.

https://help.disqus.com/en/articles/1717211-guest-commenting


Huh. Guess there's no moral dilemma then.

> It's Disqus; it doesn't work like that. Anyone can use any username.

Nah, if you click through a username, you can see where else they commented if they're logged in. And the chances of her leaving comments with that login at Breitbart / Drudge Report but not Gateway Pundit are so vanishingly small to not even consider.

But yeah, most of her really off-the-rails stuff was at properties the Nieman Labs guy didn't control so he couldn't delete, it seems like she wrote dumb nonsense on his page partially identifying herself and then he just clicked through to read the rest of her garbage she was writing all over the internet about every silly right-wing conspiracy theory du jour.


I'm sure the muslim students would believe that the comment written by the account she controlled wasn't written by her.

Which depends on the philosophy behind the firing. Was it punitive, or to prevent ongoing harm?

Likely...

She is a professor at a state college. The state is obligated to follow the law, including the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, declaring that "Congress shall make now law... abridging the freedom of speech." Yes, this is incorporated against the states. Yes, it applies to state-run colleges. The firing MAY be legal if this speech is "disruptive" to the university or "subversive" of their goals; if so, the firing must satisfy a balancing test as to whether:

• the employee's speech addresses a matter of public concern.

• their free-speech interests outweigh their employer’s efficiency interests.

The comments do seem to be on a matter of public concern, which is typically interpreted quite broadly. The criteria used to assess these efficiency interests include whether the speech:

• Impairs discipline or harmony among co-workers.

• Has a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary

• Interferes with the normal operation of the employer’s business.

Any litigation over this firing would focus on whether these are real factors that would disrupt teaching, or whether the university officials are just punishing her for her politics. The specific tweets are presumably not directed against any individuals who are at the college, and do not involve the college's normal operations. This does undermine the case somewhat.


Her lawsuit is against the Neiman Lab for defamation, not her employer for wrongful termination.

That's quite nice, but the parent comment insists her employer has a duty to do something about her conduct, while it's not at all clear it was even legal.

Of course it was legal - this has been litigated many times, which is how you end up with public servants (e.g. Police officers) being fired for being racist on "personal time".

You can't fire them for the speech - which is of course protected - but you can fire them because they can't possibly be qualified to hold their position while holding/espousing those views. Unless there's a specific state law protecting employees from off-duty conduct (Pennsylvania doesn't have one), employees can certainly be fired.


She specifically alleges that this comment about Muslims was not hers. I do not have any way to know if that's true or not--and I find the article's notion that she should know who did make an anonymous online comment incredibly thoughtless--but if that's true, your entire argument is wrongly premised.

I would think that she would want to prove that statement falsely attributed first in a defamation suit before going after the university.

The test above is correctly quoted, the only dispute is factual which none of us here has the evidence to resolve. She may be lying or telling the truth, but we can't make any grand pronouncements about whether the university was right or wrong on the basis of disputed factual claims that have yet to be resolved in court.


If she succeeds in proving that she didn't make the one comment about Muslims wasn't made by her, and thus she was defamed, then she would have to prove that the university fired her for that comment and only that comment. Seems unlikely to me.

If discussion here is anything to go by, that one comment is what everyone hates. I haven't seen even an allegation that the other comments were offensive in the same way yet. Even the article here makes it the centerpiece of their criticism.

And it's the one comment she says she didn't make.

I wonder if her lawyer has seen this story? Many of the comments here could be helpful in showing damages.


If it wasn't legal, why wouldn't she be suing on those grounds instead?

> Now, I think there is little room for taking issue with point A. If we're at the point where Journalists can't discuss the views of people in their own space, I have very little hope for a future environment of open and honest discourse.

Really? There's very little hope for an environment of open and honest discourse without doxing people?


Sorry, I misrepresented the situation due to ignorance.

Doxxing people is condemnable, journalists discussing each others views alone is not.


I think doxxing is a tool. It can be used in condemnable ways.

It's also used in virtuous ways; for example, to determine whether what appears to be grassroots activism is astroturfing (https://www.businessinsider.com/astroturfing-grassroots-move...).


There is no open and honest discourse without knowing who you are talking to.

Strange that you say this on HN, a forum that allows pseudonymous accounts. Is the discourse here not open and honest? Less open and honest then on facebook? Regardless, if you think an open and honest discourse requires knowing who people are, you should have an explicit policy to that effect. You should not use private data entrusted to you to dox people.

Perhaps I should've said good faith discourse, because yes, I do not believe continuous good faith political discourse is possible when people can hide behind pseudonymity. Most political discussions online devolve into bad faith because there are no consequences. Not having anonymity is the first step toward ensuring good faith.

What does "good faith" mean? Does it mean "honest"? For example, I, the real actual me, think that the US should vastly reduce the number of unskilled immigrants it admits, strongly secure its borders, tighten the eligibility criteria for asylum, and deport anyone found crossing the border illegally. However, on Facebook or LinkedIn I would never say this as I would get Francesca Viola'd. So it's actually my real name identity that speaks in "bad faith" and only my pseudonymous identities (on HN, Reddit, and in the voting booth) that speak in "good faith."

Some of the best discourse I've had has been with folks I have no way of identifying.

Some of the worst I've seen was under their real names (including one I knew as a leadership role in a local Scouting group, and another prominent local businessman) on Nextdoor.


> In this case they were pushing some rather racist discourse. They said in response to an article about Muslims "Scum. Deport them. They hate us. Get rid of them."

That's better described as religious intolerance, not quite the same as racism per se. Not that this makes the attitude any less problematic, far from it. OP is ironically projecting her own attitude onto Muslims by saying that they all hate us for not sharing their religion.


Sure, but keep in mind that islamophobia, xenophobia, and racism are partially overlapping phenomena.

That's a bit hard to square with the fact that so much religiously-motivated hate towards Muslims comes from other self-identified Muslims. If there's some of the overlap you mention, it must be quite limited indeed.

Well in reference to the comment in the article about deporting muslims, the islamophobia is overlapping with xenophobia at the very least.

I'd bet there's a huge overlap amongst right wing americans. Probably the same for many Western right wing populations.

If we're going to call that population limited, then yeah I'd agree


Yeah agreed.

In all likely hood, she was talking about a subset of Muslims. Possibly the ones with terrorist tendencies. Seems like the full context needs to be examined to cast judgment.

Article is about muslims praying/protesting in front of Trump tower in New York and as far as I know there has not been terrorist attack on Trump tower.

I suppose its less defensible for sure. Still her comment seems aimed at even a smaller subset of Muslims, actually a tiny subset of those that were there on that day. Definitely less then what is claimed in a lot of posts here, that it was aimed at all Muslims.

Why were Muslims protesting in front of Trump Tower? Seems like Trump was like the first President in decades not to Bomb the shit out of one of their countries of origin. Trump had one the lowest Muslim body counts since last century.

Perhaps her comment was all about perceived ingratitude.

I've come across this before, were Americans think other countries should be grateful that they don't get bombed.


I think the key here is that person A used admin access to a product to access user B information and then made it public. I would say that the company that owns the product should also be sued since I am pretty sure this data usage is not covered in their privacy policy/TOS.

> Other people are pointing out that Joshua doxxed Francesca using priveleged information from their Disqus platform.

He also seems to have done this in retaliation towards legitimate commentary and criticism of a Nieman Lab article. If there's anything that makes his behavior especially reprehensible, surely this must be it. And this also implies that her lawsuit might actually have some merit to it.


> And this also implies that her lawsuit might actually have some merit.

How so? It's a defamation suit so the criteria are pretty clear and as far as I'm aware whether it was revenge or not doesn't have any bearing.


The defamation suit is claiming that his attempt to de-anonymize her false-positive-associated some reprehensible things said on another site with her, which she did not say. She isn't disputing that she said the things on the Disqus forum (or several other things on other sites).

She's either telling the truth or she's gambling that he overplayed his hand, doesn't have hard evidence to link her to those comments, and (in the context of a civil suit, which is what defamation is) lacks the resources to prove his case with preponderance of evidence. In which case, he'll be liable for damages and have to pay to "make her whole" (which could be quite a bit if she can convince the court she lost her job because of the things she's alleged to have said in that one set of comments she's suing over).


The only thing I can think of is that maybe she had some expected right to privacy that he violated on behalf of Neiman Labs?

Either that or maybe she can demonstrate how his actions caused her harm without her harming him, but his actions were only possible as an employee of Neiman labs.

I think what will most likely happen is he will be fired and she will get an undisclosed settlement.


C). The journalist acknowledged and apologized for his error in judgement when performing A.

https://twitter.com/jbenton/status/994303319907725312


But he used his administrative privileges on Disqus to discover her identity. If you criticized Sundar Pichai from an anonymous Gmail account should it be OK for him to look up your IP logs and dox you? I’d hope not.

Yes of course using a priveleged position to dox someone is condemnable. I'll admit, I missed where Joshua Benton managed to identify Francesca Viola.

However that wasn't what I was taking issue with in the parent comment.

I think it's reasonable to expect however that:

- Journalists should be able to discuss each others views

- People who work at tech platforms should not dox their users (without a warrant)

- There is an acceptable point where an employer can fire their employees for what views they express in their private life.

So in all, is what Joshua did wrong here? I'd say so, but only because he doxxed a user. Is what the University did wrong here? It sucks where the information came from, but probably not. But even if you were to argue that there was, I find what Joshua did here to be largely immaterial towards that point, it's only how her employer chooses to react that is relevant.


You can’t ethically separate cause and effect in this case though.

If I wanted to analyse the ethics of the whole situation, no of course I can't.

But I can say that an unethical decision on the part of one party spurred on an ethical response from another.

If a robber breaks into a house a pedophile and discovers illicit material, are the police unethical for following up on that lead?


It's weird, but I remember a completely different consensus on journalists publishing and using "hacked" information just last year.

Abusing one's admin position to dox someone is not really distinguishable from any principled position against publishing hacked information.

It's weird to me that this ethical consideration seems to be something that can be ignored whenever convenient.


Was this information "hacked" from the US government or a corporation? We've frequently seen dumps of information from corporations and governments that could not be acquired legally but leveraging them is, IMO, a net good. There is no "person" that's being harmed, just a company's profits.

They doxxed a person, and allegedly misattributed racist comments to the wrong person based on that info which was gathered without authorization from Disqus.

That probably shouldn't rise to a CFAA violation, but there was a supposed ethical standard around publishing hacked information, so it's a bit weird to see that ethical consensus come and go so easily.


He's not a Disqus employee. He used the moderation tools on Nieman Lab's Disqus install.

That isn't remotely the same thing - he wasn't an admin at Disqus, he was an admin on the Disqus instance at their own website. She went to his website, commented horrible things under an anonymous account, and he exposed her as a person in a position of trust. That's not even close to approaching an abuse like the CEO of Google doxxing your gmail account.

She didn't comment horrible things on his website, only a critique of an article. He took offense to that, de-anonymized her by abusing the moderation system and looked for distasteful comments elsewhere.

I won't speak to the legality of it because I'm not qualified, but it's morally reprehensible.


That is not necessarily the order these things happened in.

He could have

1. Taken offense to this comment/taken interest in what else this user comments (which you can do without any admin tools)

2. Seen the islamophobic/xenophobic comment

3. De-anonymized the user

In this version the de-anonymization is related to the more repugnant comments, not the initial critique.


How is it different? It’s a misuse of the information he had access to. He was within his rights to ban her but not to dox her (and Disqus should not have exposed email addresses to site admins).

How is it a misuse? If you had a blog with a comment system and someone wrote horrible things, it's well within your rights to see who they are based on their registration and publish a post naming and shaming them. These are all 1st amendment protected activities. Free speech in the US is an extraordinarily broad right for very good reason. She's claiming defamation (which is one of the limits on free speech) but it's very likely bullshit given she admitted to writing the rest of the posts, just not the overtly racist ones all showing up under her account.

Take the internet away and it's even more obviously protected. If you ran a newspaper and occasionally published letters from readers, and if a racist letter showed up with a vaguely obfuscated address that was easily traceable, it would be well within your rights to write an article about the person in a position of power who sent your newspaper racist rantings.

The journalist likely violated Disqus's terms of service but in no way does that give the professor grounds to sue him.


>If you had a blog with a comment system and someone wrote horrible things, it's well within your rights to see who they are based on their registration and publish a post naming and shaming them.

I've been surfing everything from Usenet to webboards and other internet comment facilities for 25 years, how come I've never seen it? Typically the routine goes: cosmetic blocking (hiding, disemvoweling), account block, email block, ip block, then whack-a-mole for the truly persistently annoying.

Have you, and can you link to it if so?


Personally, I find it in very bad taste.

In the abstract sure, but say you're the journalist in question and you discover that a professor at a major university thinks all "muslims are scum" -- is it worse taste to say "too bad about that" and do nothing or take just the barest of steps to ID her and make sure she doesn't have authority over any muslim students without them knowing about her mindset?

It's the manner of discovery that's in bad taste, abusing your position that comes with back-end disqus access.

There's a reason certain forms of evidence are inadmissible in court.

(The professor's also at fault for not anonymizing herself better, of course.)


Then-professor Francesca Viola used her institutional email to login to Disqus. This proved to be extremely problematic for her institution, Temple University.

A professor naturally speaks with the authority of their corresponding institution, whether they or the institution likes it that way. A professor is also often in a position of leadership as they supervise the fate of students.


> A professor naturally speaks with the authority of their corresponding institution

Does she though? She had every reason to believe her choice of email address would remain private.

By a similar token, I am currently working for <REDACTED> (on lunch break) and using a computer belonging to said entity. If you managed to work out what <REDACTED> is, would I retroactively be considered to be speaking for it?


If you are a mere student who was later uncovered to be an unsavory Twitter person, do you speak for the institution? In some ways you do, and in some ways you don't — whether or not you or the institution likes it that way. Similarly, if you are a judge or lawyer and you're later found making unsavory statements about ethnic defendants, do you speak for the institution of law? That is up to the public to decide.

Credibility and reputation aren't precisely in anyone's hands.


It's a little more complicated than that, though.

The underlying issue for the university is whether she can effectively teach Muslim students when she thinks they're "scum" who should be deported. And, will Muslim students be comfortable signing up for her class now, or has she effectively steered them away with her racism? Regardless of how it came to their attention, the university undoutedly has some kind of zero-tolerance policy against racism.

Generally I agree with your sentiment, but I think this case squeezes into that small "little to zero" impact section.


> The underlying issue for the university is whether she can effectively teach Muslim students when she thinks they're "scum" who should be deported.

The article says that she denies writing that exact comment and that is in fact part of why the lawsuit has been permitted to go forward.


I don't think any of the students will believe that considering the comment was posted by her account and she has provided no evidence showing it wasn't her.

Let's see what the court says. I don't see any comment by "truthseeker" in the archive linked from the article so that part is not verifiable, I don't know how unique Disqus names are (there could be multiple "truthseeker"s with different spelling, spacing, etc.), and it's hardly impossible for someone to misuse another person's account. I would not expect anyone intelligent to comment on pending litigation, either, and it's entirely possible that she has literally no idea who on earth anyone else posting as "truthseeker" might be.

The court called her allegations "plausible" (though that's a far cry from "true"), and the article also says that Benton posted an apology: "By revealing such details without making an effort to contact her and seek confirmation and explanation, and otherwise adhere to rigorous reporting methods, the tweets did not meet Nieman’s journalistic standards. I apologize and regret my error in judgment."

So it seems to me that Benton has already admitted failing to validate this information, thus I'm reluctant to take it as given.

That aside, if comments here are any indication, she's screwed even if this isn't true. Half of the posters here appear unaware that she denies making that comment.

Comments like those can be used as evidence of damage to her reputation should she win.


Yea if it turns out she didn't write that one he's got a big problem.

She is not pursuing a lawsuit against the university itself (at least at this point) for exactly the reason you point out here - a university cannot reasonably trust someone with those views to treat Muslim students fairly.

> for exactly the reason

Do you have insider information about the case, or is this your synthesis? The former strikes me as being unlikely, because you seem to have missed that the cornerstone of the suit is the claim that she's not actually the one responsible for the anti-Muslim comment, which is what makes this defamation.


"Someone hacked my account to post that one comment that's in line with the other sorts of comments I've been posting for years... and they managed to use my IP address" is gonna have an uphill battle for credibility in court.

It certainly will, but she's got every right to pursue it in court because sometimes that does happen.

This is not an answer to the question.

Generally, I think it depends on WHAT they say.

If someone says they don't trust / like people of a particular race, and they're in a position where they are expected to work with those folks. That certainly has something to do with their job.

That's not threatening or violent, but as an employer I don't think you can ignore it / tell everyone at that workplace "well she didn't say it here so guess you have to ignore it...".

Ultimately almost every job involves working with people, and you don't get to pick and choose who that is.


> That certainly has something to do with their job.

“certainly”? why?

i’m a contrarian. i will argue against you on pretty much any subject in order to bring out the best arguments. are you still so certain my contrarian opinions will have something to do with my job?


I'm not aware of how being a contrarian would really apply to my example.

> Generally, I think it depends on WHAT they say.

This argument used to be used to fire gay people from engineering jobs. Because being gay was obviously very bad and you can’t possibly have good judgement if you’re gay.

Being gay and racist have obviously different implications on your workplace behavior and biases. The issue is that precedent is precedenty. If we normalize firing people for their personal life issues, where do we stop?


How can you expect muslims to accept her as their professor when she called them scum and said to deport them? She is no longer an effective educator as all her grades for muslim students would be suspect. I draw the line at able to effectively perform job duties.

You quoted someone saying it depends on WHAT they say, then posted an example of someone being fired for who they are. That isn't the same.

I'm not sure what you mean, actually focusing on what someone said isn't an argument... it's a thing they actually said.

My question is whether the practice of firing people for what they say or do in their life outside work while off duty is a good idea in general? Is that something we want to condone?

In some cases the answer is obviously yes. Off-duty cops committing crimes, not good. A politician or judge might never be fully off-duty.

Where is the line for professors? Naked pics with their spouse? Orgies? Racist tweets? Racist comments at a friend’s barbecue? Being a spy for China?

What about for regular employees. Fired when they speak against the company? When they complain about toxic work environment? Or just if they say something racist? What if they’re asian and say a racist joke at a party? Or an ardent feminist with edgy views against men? How about an angry father who got his kids taken away and now says mean things about women?

If we normalize these firings for saying things we don’t like, others will want to normalize them for things we do like.


The fact that some firings for outside behavior are bad is not enough, imo, to justify a blanket prohibition on firing based on outside behavior that would prohibit me from firing an employee who called black people scum (for instance).

I think this is probably the median perspective.


One theory that suggests firing people can be a good thing is you want social consequences for bad behavior.

For example, firing people for joining the KKK is a good way to reduce their ability to recruit and radicalize others.

But under American law you can be generally fired for no reason, so it's weird we are even having this conversation in the land of no job security.


I don't agree with him, but his post seems pretty straightforward and easy to understand. You're reasoning that we should fire people based on WHAT they say, that's an argument you're making about how to go about firing people.

Yes... what we communicate to each other matters.

FTA:

> In her suit, Viola acknowledged writing most of the posts

I'm as pro-free-speech as the next person, but looking at the evidence[0] I frankly don't understand on what leg Viola is hoping to stand. If I understand this right, she's claiming she is the person behind the truthseeker username on Gateway Pundit, but that she didn't write a specific comment that was entered into evidence as being written by truthseeker? How does that not scream lying to evade responsibility?

Also, IMHO, the repercussions on her job are not really relevant to the suit. Had Benton outed her for spamming pictures of unicorns, her job would've been just fine. It's her own alleged content that got her into hot water with her employer. Benton has no control over her employer's actions.

[0] https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/59725194/8/4/viola-v-be... (page 5)


I think it highly depends on the content and relation to the profession.

You indeed can post things outside of a professional setting which demonstrate that you aren't appropriate for your job. A journalism professor commenting on the news isn't exactly unrelated activity.

This is indeed close to the edge of what would be appropriate but it would seem that what she said went beyond opinion and perspective and well into a questionable relationship with the truth and hate speech.

A professor should be held to a high standard of rationality and posting things online, even anonymously, should be able to be taken into consideration.


We’ve had journalists claim that all journalism is (should be) activism --that in itself is an oxymoron. but that's "journalism" in the States, today.

So we have journalists who see it in their purview to frame things to fit their objectives as they envision them.

We also had someone at the NYT who said what is in this age called hate speech against a majority “color” but wasn’t fired for those comments. So it’s indeed one sided.


> but academia is poisoning free speech under the guise of righteousness.

No. "Free speech" is not a get out of jail free card.

I think there may some narrow grounds for a lawsuit here, but it's not about free speech, it's about piercing pseudo-anonymity.


The lawsuit is purely a claim that the doxxing false-positived some posts that didn't originate from the doxxed individual.

The suit itself isn't purporting to make any claims about the ethical or legal dimensions of using the information available to find someone in the way it was used, only that statements were attributed which the plaintiff did not make.


There's a large body of established case law that organizations do not have to bear the consequences of their employee's private lives, or continue their association with an individual when that association is harmful to the organization. You're proposing an appealing ideal, but it's already contrary to a lot of existing decisions on the first amendment and balancing the competing rights of the different parties.

In other words, you're stripping the rights of some to enhance the rights of others, which is rarely intended, but still something that has to be recognized.


I'll never understand how people can respect academia. It's a thoroughly shitty environment for people who at best got gaslighted into not valuing their time. The only reason the hard sciences are more credible than the soft sciences or the humanities is because the hard sciences are forced to tackle reality in a manner where it can tell them they're wrong without room for simply inventing a new critical framework and attacking the topic instead of the question.

She can't maintain employment because she can't be taken seriously anymore. She is not a victim, she ruined her own reputation through her own actions and words. This literally has nothing to do with free speech which is why she isn't making the claim.

She did harm and admitted as much. She’s being petty because she got let go. She has said that she made no anti Semitic comments against Muslims and that’s what the case is about.

How is any of it defamation, though? Defamation is the telling of lies about someone in order to damage their reputation. If anything, Nieman violated laws against doxxing.

I would say that aggressively disseminating hate speech and generally forwarding crazy conspiracy theories and racism qualifies as "harming and threatening" others.

What about the freedom to hire/fire whomever you want to?

> She was clearly targeted, ostracized, and fired for speaking her mind. I don’t agree with her statement, but academia is poisoning free speech under the guise of righteousness.

Big claims, iff true.


"One truthseeker comment that Benton found, responding to a 2017 Gateway Pundit piece about a Muslim protest at Trump Tower, was especially abhorrent: “Scum. Deport them. They hate us. Get rid of them.”

Calling an ethnicity of people "scum" and to "deport" them is harmful behavior. Every time something like this comes up the actual matter gets downplayed as if it were "just a comment". When this individual quite literally is being 100% racist with intent to cause harm. Perhaps were all too young to remember what happens when people like that group together.


Which she denies saying. In fact the article goes on to state that the journalist never actually verified or even asked her if she made that statement. Just assumed.

Disqus ID's are unique and public. Hover over a name and it'll give you the ID. Guests can't comment with names.

Are you implying that if it were verified that she made that comment that you would change your mind about her firing?

Good question. I think yes, if you disparage publicly a persons race or religion, that would be justification for termination from a job. I would put that under hate speech, and it would apply equally to everyone. Here what troubles me is that she denies it, and there’s no proof that she said it, but she’s being made to be accountable for it. With the depositions and everything I’m sure that she is going to be asked did you write this, and she will be required to answer under oath. I think that will be a very telling moment and all of this. The Internet makes it far too easy to attribute things to people.

I could create an account on a multitude of services call “TOMDM” Top of your bio, and say some truly horrible things. Your job or employer comes to you and says why would you say these things and you say hey that wasn’t me, someone took a name that I was using on another service. Well I’m sorry, we have to let you go. Now it’s up to you to pursue civil litigation probably in order to identify the person who was actually using that handle, so you could then go back to your former employee and say your termination of me was unjustified.

That’s what I’m seeing here, a claim without proof Which has led to someone’s loss of employment. I’m bothered by that and I think we all should be.


> that would be justification for termination from a job

From how many jobs tho. This happened in 2017. The problem is there's no statute of limitations on moral outrage, so if acting on it is justified, the punishment would effectively be a jobless life.

And I think that's a little excessive.


If we're talking from the employers perspective, likely until it doesn't hit the bottom line.

To make this discussion easier, lets consider just the comments in isloation, and assume they're all verified (like most would as an employer, to do otherwise would bring extra risk on yourself)

If you're employing Muslims, then in this case, she's probably unemployable by you until she can demonstrate reform of some kind to an extent where both she and others in the workplace can collaborate effectively.

However, as a journalist it depends on your outlet.

Some may look at her conspiracism, and decide that to get to that point alone she's probably not a very good journalist and would again need to demonstrate some sort of pivot in her decision making that lead her to that point.

On the other hand, there are probably some right wing outlets that would look at her and decide she's a great journalist based on those comments, and that her decision making is on point.

Whether this is good or ideal is another matter.

It comes down to how much you want the government involved in businesses ability to freely associate.


> It comes down to how much you want the government involved in businesses ability to freely associate.

that is a very good point and I don't know why you're being downvoted for it.

still, is the business freely deciding not to associate with the person, or is the mob forcing the business hand?


Yeah I agree almost entirely, I think the next point of contention people would need to hash out is how heavy should the burden of proof be that employers should strive for.

I'd hope that there was some formal process her employer undertook in order to meet their own bar, wherever that was set, rather than letting an external party set the narrative entirely.

That aside, I think your initial comment may have been a tad dismissive of the idea that such an investigation could have taken place, especially considering she was fired a year after the controversy started.

> I don’t agree with her statement, but academia is poisoning free speech under the guise of righteousness.


>>Calling an ethnicity of people "scum" and to "deport" them is harmful behavior.

Being a Muslim has nothing to do with ethnicity.


American Muslims are 26% white, versus an overall American percentage of between 61% and 77% depending on who you count. Pretending there's nothing to do with ethnicity is hard to sustain.

If you're using the word "ethnicity" as a proxy for race, then no. But "ethnicity" doesn't just mean race, and GP may well have been using the word in that manner.

Was the comment about the group of Muslims protesting Trump or all Muslims? I see nothing to indicate anything more than the former.

A professor is someone who speaks with the authority of their associated institution, whether they or the institution wants it that way. In that respect, a professor can drain the credibility of an institution faster than they can repair it, as is typically the case with credibility anywhere. And in this case, then-professor Francesca Viola logged in with her official institutional email.

Speaking her mind was the not the issue. The issue is draining the credibility of the institution. The academic institution she hails from, Temple University, has their own interests to watch out for, she did not sue them.


According to the linked article, her speech was definitely threatening harm to specific groups of people, not at all what you describe in your first sentence.

Temple’s own student news site backed Viola’s right to say what she thought: “We don’t believe she should be removed for her alleged comments, although we condemn them.”

And Benton’s actions seemed at odds with Disqus’s own policies, which state that “user information is for moderation purposes only” and adds that “distribution of personal identifiable information is prohibited.”


Also, it’s been known that people with normal accounts also have alternate provocateur social media counts where they gauge reaction to what they say. Sometimes they egg their own accounts for sympathy, etc.

Imagine if we discovered all those accounts…


I would agree if she didn't exhibit racism. Keeping her in a workplace after learning about that would be sending a signal that they care little about how hostile the workplace is.

Right - if she just said dumb nonsense, the school wouldn't have fired her. She was racist against a protected class under Federal employment law, who she certainly interacts with -- how could they possibly keep her on staff?

And suing the website for exposing your racism? Why would she think she has any right to anonymity while spewing trash on someone else's platform?


> What someone does legally, without harming or threatening anyone else, in their private life outside of their job, should have little to zero impact on their ability to maintain employment.

Except this has always been the case. What you do outside your work has always affected your ability to maintain employment. The difference is that now those who benefited from this in the past are now suffering from it.

> She was clearly targeted, ostracized, and fired for speaking her mind.

No, this is literally not what happened. I can point to numerous cases of people speaking their mind without suffering from repercussions.

Pretending this was about someone "speaking their mind" ignores the reality and nuances of what is actually happening.


Like all other religious extremists, their worldview is that heretics and non-believers are not just sinning, they are condemned to an eternity of hellish suffering. It's ironic that supposedly liberal arts universities and "4th estate" journalists are the newest converts to this type of extremism.

Well, obviously the disagreement in this whole space seems to be around what “harming or threatening anyone else” means.

Some people, for instance, would find (making up a hypothetical) it “harming” if a large strong person spent spare time drawing incredibly graphic representations of smaller weaker coworkers being sexually assaulted by him. Others believe that no harm has been caused.

Hopefully, in that situation you can see both sides of the argument. Now you can weaken that to whether referring to Muslims as people who should be deported is similarly a point where people can disagree.

For my part, I believe in the freedom and liberty. No one has the right to have their stuff bought by someone. Temple doesn’t have the right to have students go to them. If they feel like they have to fire people in order to appeal to people, they should be permitted to. If they feel like they would rather lose customers than professors, that’s fine too.

Unlike California, which believes that political opinion should be a protected class, I prefer the federal system.


Bottom line: doxing is doxing no matter who does it. It isn’t about “rights” but about the right way to live. Pseudonymous posting may have been that lady’s cry for help that she couldn’t say elsewhere. As it stands Benton just put another brick in the wall.

Remember this guy?

https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/01/us/carson-king-hospital-fundr...


Maybe the right way to live is to not spread hatred and laughably false conspiracies? Maybe the right way to live is to call out those that do. Peer pressure is an incredibly powerful force, and if she wrote that comment about muslims the educational environment at Temple is better now that she's gone. Even if she didn't, I believe that most journalism students would not want to be taught by someone who can not tell fact from fiction.

> Temple’s own student news site backed Viola’s right to say what she thought: “We don’t believe she should be removed for her alleged comments, although we condemn them.”

To be fair, I don't know how representative the student news site is of journalism students. But I also don't really think you can make a "right way to live" argument for someone who admitted to and apologized for wrongdoing.


> But I also don't really think you can make a "right way to live" argument for someone who admitted to and apologized for wrongdoing.

Of course I can. Just because he apologized doesn't mean he was wrong.


If you really think it's ok for someone to abuse privileged access on a supposed "anonymous" commenting platform to dox someone because they didn't like their comments, then I don't think our discussion is going anywhere.

edit: commenting platform of a _journalism_ organization! Journalists should know better than _anyone_ how important anonymous communication is.

If you want to argue that he was just doing what he thought was right, fine. But I think that they should update their organization's website to include something along the lines of "we think journalism is important, unless we disagree with what you're saying."


This case isn't a question of morality - Francesca Viola has openly admitted to spreading the false conspiracies and the other comments. She also appealed to her position of authority at the university in her own comments.

She's claiming that Benton misattributed the Islamophobe comment "Scum. Deport them. They hate us. Get rid of them.” to her, despite it being from the same disqus account.

If you want to drag morality into it to take the moral high ground, at what point does making bad faith arguments in civil court cross the line too?


I wasn't arguing anything related to the lawsuit. The comment that started this thread stated that doxxing was wrong, and morality was dragged in in the comment I responded to, which said that doxxing people is ok if you feel it's morally justified ("the right way to live").

I personally think the university had every right to fire her. I also think that what Benton did was extremely unethical, especially because he works for a journalism organization.


Sometimes two wrongs make a right. I really think people have gotten far to comfortable with anonymity on the internet. If you want to say something that could cause you to face significant social/political/economic backlash you should have to think twice about how to ensure no one will trace it back to you.

Are you saying the apology of two years ago was coerced or are you calling him a liar or something t?

It’s be nice to be a saint, wouldn’t it? Must be hard to ward off pride in one’s contnual righteousness. (And excellent spelling!)

I’d agree that engagement with folks offering disagreeable ideas is the right thing to do when done in the moment with a spirit of empathy and learning. But doxing ain’t calling someone out. It’s more akin to gossiping behind someone’s back and acting as if a person at their worst was all there was.

She got canned, he got sued, lawyers won.


Is doxxing illegal, though? It kinda depends on the circumstances.

It's rarely illegal in the US. There are exceptions, but as a rule of thumb, US law leans heavily in the direction of "more truth is better." That includes the truth of who someone who'd rather speak pseudonymously actually is.

Exceptions tend to center around safety of the speaker and massive and obvious power imbalances.

For example, in this case the claim on the table is one of the statements attributed to Viola was not made by her. She hasn't sued over the rest of the statements attributed to her and she hasn't sued over the university's right to terminate her.


Thanks. It feels reasonable to sue based on a false attribution of what she said. Saying she was this ID doesn't seem bad except for when it's not true that she was this ID.

She already admitted to being the account holder, she just says that some of the comments made under her account weren’t made by her. Specifically the comment about how some Muslims hate the country and should be deported.

The legality is superfluous. Most everyone breaks some laws some of the time. Nobody always does the right thing.

Doxing that lady was a mistake and the dude apologized for it. Unfortunately the bell can’t be unrung and the story continues to the dreary part where nobody wins but the lawyers.


Whatever you think of what Viola posted, if she is fired, Benton should definitely also be fired for doxxing her. Disqus should also revoke Nieman Lab's account (but I bet they won't).

I don't agree with Viola, but if she's able to live under the radar then more power to her. Frankly, people on the "fake news" side of US politics usually can't keep quiet, so let's maybe even commend her for her discretion.

But Benton's acts were worse, WAY worse. Not worse than being a fake-news Republican, but worse than simply being a shithead on Twitter.


> if she is fired, Benton should definitely also be fired for doxxing her

Isn't that anchoring bias? For starters, why equate firing with punishment? Firing an employee is a discretion of an employer meant to be used if they deem that the employee did not fulfill duties adequately, it's not really supposed to be a vehicle for mob appeasement.

More generally, I take issue with this idea that doing something bad ought to result in career ruin. Like, is the undertext that they ought to gtfo of their field of expertise and go flip burgers or something instead? I feel like there ought to be better ways to address conduct issues that doesn't involve messing w/ people's livelihoods (twitter lynching is not any better, to be clear)

IMHO, it'd be more conducive to a healthy society if we defaulted to talking about remediation strategies in the workplace, like three-strike systems, clearer public comm policies etc than defaulting to tearing people down.


Benton's acts were worse? In what way? Viola "anonymously" called Muslim people scum (not really anonymous because she used her work email and exposed info about her location / job). He called her out, in a very public way. Kinda hard to feel sorry for her, to be honest.

And he violated Disqus' TOS to do it, not to mention basic responsibility not to abuse information access. Ah but maybe you've never had to protect sensitive information before, such that the responsibility itself is foreign.

I’m conflicted here. On the one hand, I’m not in favor of contacting a person’s employer because you don’t like their comments. Plenty of people have sent me terrible emails over the years from their work emails and I have never even considered emailing their bosses.

On the other hand, she used her Temple email for the Disqus account and used it to comment on a different university’s journalism lab website, while openly admitting to being a journalism professor. We can question whether it was ethical for Benton to reveal who she was on Twitter (tho I would hardly call this “doxxing” as he didn’t reveal her phone number or address), especially without reaching out for comment first, but I don’t see anything illegal about it.

The fact that she is suing Nieman and not Temple makes it clear she has little basis for anything, in my opinion. She was an assistant professor and almost certainly didn’t have tenure (or else she wouldn’t have been fired) and was, given the amount of time she had been at Temple, probably never even going to approach getting tenure. She used her work email to register for a pseudonymous account; there should be no expectation of that email address being private to the site owners or administrators. That’s something a longtime journalism professor (and professed attorney) should know.

Moreover, her claims that she didn’t write the worst comment are just laughable. That isn’t how Disqus works. It also doesn’t matter here. It was entirely reasonable and in good faith to assume that comments made under the linked account at websites, where by her own admission she made comments, were by her.

Reading the judge’s decision not to dismiss, the only reason the suit wasn’t dismissed is because at this stage, the judge assumes everything written in the complaint is true. I don’t at all expect this case to survive much further, nor for it to be decided in her favor.

Putting the legal issues aside, I do think it is fair to find what Benton did to be in poor judgment. He should have reached out for comment first — or really just let it go. Let people have bad opinions. But I hardly think he did anything worthy of a lawsuit.

As for Temple, well, she didn’t have tenure and she embarrassed the school. It seems entirely reasonable for them to not renew her contract. But as I said above, she’s not suing them. She’s suing Harvard and Benton.

I wouldn’t have done what Benton did, but I am also not overly sympathetic to someone who decided to use their work email to shitpost and then got called out.

Was what Benton did unethical? Without reaching out for comment first, I think it probably was. At the very least, it was punching down and unnecessary. Should he be sued for defamation? I don’t think so.


I don't think this lawsuit will go anywhere. The lawsuit is a defamation lawsuit, which is notoriously difficult to prove, as you have to prove that the statements were knowingly false (not made as an opinion) and made with purpose to damage you.

In this case, from what I can see, the claims were largely true. You can't successfully sue for defamation of statements that are just true. Then, even if there are claims that aren't true, you have to prove the untrue statement wasn't an opinion and that it was made with the intent to say an untrue thing as if were fact in order to damage you.

EDIT: A poster below pointed out that you to make claims statements that you knew were false; there is also standing if you didn't know they were false but you didn't confirm if they were true in a manner deemed as "reckless" by the court. I believe this is a lesser burden than I described above, but still a very high bar.


From the article:

> In her suit, Viola acknowledged writing most of the posts. But she denied being behind the anti-Muslim screed. That was critical to Sorokin’s decision to allow the libel and defamation part of Viola’s suit to proceed. The former professor “has plausibly alleged that Benton may have been negligent in his failure to verify that she was the author,” the judge wrote.

If she can prove that it wasn't her/Benton can't prove that it was her (I'm not familiar with the legal system, so I don't know which it would be), then there would indeed be an untrue statement. As for damage; why does anyone dredge up another's darker side, if not to damage them in some way? I can't think of another motive for doing so.


Basically all critical reporting dredges up another's darker side and it's important.

Maybe you can say that she isn't notable enough that it would be valuable as news, but I don't think that standard would be hit there are a lot of reports now about Karens and such, and her being a professor adds some umph.


Does tweeting constitute critical reporting?

Yes, as now we have heads of state and ambassadors using Twitter.

> As for damage; why does anyone dredge up another's darker side, if not to damage them in some way?

To confront them with the harms of their "darker side", with hopes that they will have a change of heart and desire to reform. But.. that's often misguided if one does this in public before at least making an attempt in private.


She was wronged and harmed by his actions. This should prove to be an interesting case.

No, you have to prove that it was stated with intent of spreading false information about the person who was wronged. A reporter who genuinely believed that Viola made those statements can't be judged as committing defamation.

> No, you have to prove that it was stated with intent of spreading false information about the person who was wronged.

Even for public figures where the NY Times v. Sullivan “actual malice” standard applies, intentional/knowing falsity is not required; reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the statement is sufficient for actual malice.

https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/defamation


OK, let me add in your clarification. Thank you for educating me on the matter.

So if I genuinely think you murdered a baby I can publish articles saying you did, with no legal consequence?

Yes, that is the definition of defamation in the United States

yes, if you can prove that you genuinely believe it.

In the US that standard is only applied to public figures. For a private figure, the speaker can commit defamation if they do not exert reasonable care to ensure that the statement is true.

No, the burden is not “exert reasonable care that the statement is true”

It’s much more relaxed: “cannot have acted negligently in failing to ascertain whether the statement is true”


Also Benton didn't report this as a reporter on his publication. it was his personal twitter.

To me the more interesting problem is him using his workpace Discuss mod privileges to first ID her, and then posting to his personal twitter - which seems like it's not an official org piece of reporting. At least that's what I'm reading I think - it very well could have been possible for him to ID her without that admin info?

So maybe Benton is in violation of his work's policy.

I agree though even if it wasn't true wouldn't it have to be malicious intent to cause harm?


I agree, also federal lawsuits can be dismissed at anytime for lack of jurisdiction. For diversity jurisdiction, the amount of damages has to exceed $75,000. I don't have time to read the entire docket but that is going to be really difficult to prove.

It is interesting how much conservatives suddenly care about making sure that their speech should suffer no consequences after spending decades oppressing anyone who dares step out of line with similar loss of job, rank, and income. In the 50s you would be attacked for any deviation from anti-communist orthodoxy, in the 60s for deviation from racial orthodoxy, and in the 80s for daring to question sexual orthodoxy.

I would probably care more about their claims and complaints if they were not so transparent about the fact that their real complaint is that people who they look down on are now in a position to judge and ostracize them.


You don't have to go back to the 50s-80s.

Colin Kaepernick's situation reveals the hypocrisy, just a couple years ago.


It goes both ways. While I agree that conservatives appear to be hypocritical, I also think Democrats are equally as guilty. I really see both parties as two sides of the same coin.

I have no strong views either way, but I think it destroys her case that in the original comment she identified herself as a professor on media at a major east coast university. She was basically asking to be named as she explicitly referenced her somewhat unusual job as claim for her credibility.

The craziest part of this story is the fact that the Nieman Foundation purpose is: “to promote and elevate the standards of journalism in the United States and educate persons deemed specially qualified for journalism."

But basically they ignored the basics of journalism not verifying the sources. Nice.


People shouldn’t be downvoting you. I’m ambivalent about this whole situation (I’m a fan of NL so I’m biased either way). But the most strongly unequivocal point for me is that the defendant fell short of the journalistic standard of confirming the story and talking to the main people involved. Yes — exposing someone via tweet thread while on the job is still an act of journalism

I guess people think I’m ideologically close to her because I’m saying the foundation has poor journalistic standards… but quite the opposite. For the American standards I’m probably a leftist and for European standards a social-democrat, so I find her ideas really disgusting (I won’t write here stronger words). Journalism is really important in a full democracy, we should demand the highest standards.

About the downvoting, this is HackerNews, I can live with that :-)


she admitted to writing most of the comments.

She specifically denies the most-used example in this discussion (the anti-Muslim comment), though.

I'm using that as a filter to see who didn't read the article.


Someone hacked her disqus account to hate muslims? It's a pretty laughable defense. I wrote all the other bad things, but the worst, totally wasn't me. Someone jumped on your laptop and wrote it for you?

The thing is, someone else using her account is both possible and plausible.

Civil suits hinge on a preponderance of evidence ("who has more"), and if "same email" is all Benton had to go on, that might not be enough to surmount "anybody could have done it," regardless whether she did actually write it.

Benton didn't know for sure, apparently didn't care that he didn't know for sure, then went ahead and stated something as fact that he didn't actually know. Heck, Viola might be able to find a route to actual-malice via the apparent recklessness of an actual trained journalist (and beyond...) making an assumption about someone else that could have life-altering consequences.


It's going to be difficult to have more evidence that someone else wrote it when a logged in user account she admits to using wrote it. I didn't do it, but yes, that is my account. The message seems consistent with ideology she seems to have.

Maybe don't write hate speech if you don't want to be held accountable for it. Seems simple enough. Or at least a trained journalism professor should know how to better anonymize their hate speech. I have no sympathy for her being held accountable for her writing.


I don't think it's admitted that it's the same account. And the archive in the article does not seem to archive the comment. They link to a Breitbart story, but I do not see any comment by "truthseeker" in that archive.

It's not clear to me that it's even the same "truthseeker", it could be a different spelling, etc.


That's not the way the law works. She doesn't have to have evidence that someone else wrote it, the defendants have to have evidence they know she did. Because they doxxed her for it...which would appear to be something you do have sympathy for.

It’s really scary how people assume anybody’s privacy can be exposed without consequences. No, it can’t. In a full democracy only a judge can ask for it. Even journalists have to be extremely cautious before exposing the identity of anybody, and this is a perfect example.

They never contacted her to verify she was the person behind the email and the person that wrote comments in social media. They assumed it was her, but they did not verify it. Even a high school journalist knows this is the first rule to learn: if you assume = ass for you and me.


Couldn't disagree more. There is no right to anonymity, and for good reason. That's how you get people spouting about muslims being scum who all deserve to be deported.

Francesca got exactly what she deserved.


That is fascism. Everybody deserves the same rights, no matter what they think. If you think she is promoting a speech of hate, go to the court and try prove it.

Everyone has the same rights. Francesca has the right to spout nonsense. Joshua has the right to tell everyone she's doing it. The government doesn't care about either.

Joshua has broken the ToS of Discuss because he has access to the tool and got an email address that belongs to Francesca. He used a privileged access to obtain her PII. Under the GDPR that is simply illegal. In Western Europe his behavior could take him to a court.

This is a site where we discuss about privacy in technology, and this is an example of how people with privileged access to PII should follow the higher standards, no matter how disgusting are the opinions, like the ones from Francesca.


The email address doesn't belong to Francesca, it belongs to her employer, Temple University. She used her work email to create a Disqus account.

And the agreement between Disqus and a university lab isn't law.


Breaking the TOS of Disqus is between Nieman Labs and Disqus; their likely response would be termination of services. Francesca has no standing to enforce someone else's contract she's not part of.

The GDPR doesn't really apply here in the US. No part of this dispute happened in the EU or to EU citizens.


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