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Do not Cease and Desist! (#1236)

Topics/tags: Academia, language

I spend too much time reading the academic press, rags like Inside Higher Education and The Chronicle of Higher Education and such [1]. Often, it’s what I read while I’m waking up. And too often, I end up not only looking at the articles but also doing some follow-up work. Today was such a day.

The lead story in Inside Higher Education was about the resignation of Whittier’s president [2]. Each presidential resignation or firing is different, but they also share some commonalities. Like many small liberal arts colleges (SLACs [3]), Whittier faces declining enrollments. Whittier also suffers from an autocratic leadership team, at least as some phrase it.

But that’s not what caught my eye. It appears that Whittier was cracking down hard on its critics. The article linked to a Cease and Desist/no contact letter to one Elizabeth Power Robison. I found myself asking, Who is this person? Are they a member of the faculty? One of the trustees who got dismissed? What?

A quick Web search told me that Robison is Whittier’s former Vice President for Advancement [4]. So I dug a little deeper. I learned that she still lives near Whittier, that she donates, and that she’s active in the Save Whittier movement. I also learned that they sent the letter on Yom Kippur. The Interweb teaches us so many great things.

Save Whittier even has a page dedicated to the back-and-forth between Whittier’s lawyers, Robison, and her lawyers. My favorite part is the response to Whittier’s second Cease and Desist letter to Robison. The Cease and Desist letter is awful. For example, it demands the return of a spreadsheet that Robison created from public data and claims that she’s created a hostile workplace at Whittier, something that’s incredibly hard to do if you aren’t employed at Whittier. But the reply is masterful. Let’s see … Kenneth P. White, her lawyer, doesn’t pull any punches in his opening sentences.

I have reviewed your letter of December 18, 2022. It is perhaps the most remarkable and aggressively meritless threatening letter I have encountered in my career, including ones I have received from pro se litigants and federal prisoners.

He goes on to address the question of the spreadsheet.

The fact that Whittier College is making [the accusation that the spreadsheet is a confidential document] strongly suggests that its current administration does not understand Whittier College’s financial operations or how they are reflected in public records. That is regrettable.

I love White’s use of uncommon words, such as bumptiously [5], as in

You bumptiously demand that Ms. Robison cease making statements or engaging in other conduct that undermines President Oubré’s reputation, authority, and position.

The following paragraph digs the knife in a bit deeper.

This is entirely specious. Ms. Robison has a first Amendment right to make derogatory and negative statements about Whittier College and President Oubré, to discredit her, and to encourage her to resign. She has a First Amendment right to speak out to undermine President Oubré’s reputation, authority, and position. She requires no legitimate purpose other than being in the United States and wanting to express herself on a topic of public interest. No serious lawyer or modestly successful middle-school civics student would say otherwise. [6]

We quickly move on to one of my favorite word combinations in the letter.

In my experience such vagueness in a defamation threat is an unmistakable sign of vexatious legal thuggery. [7]

I love this man. I love that he writes clearly, aggressively, and perhaps even humorously. I probably can’t afford him as a lawyer. I hope I never need him as a lawyer.

Nonetheless, it was great to read. I thought I’d share my joy with you. I’d encourage you to read the rest of the letter. I’m putting his ’blog on my to read list [8]. Mayhaps he’ll inspire me to write better.

[1] I really miss Lingua Franca, which had wonderful long articles.

[2] No, not Richard Nixon. He attended Whittier and resigned as president, but he’s not Whittier’s president who resigned.

[3] Not PANTS. Those are Parents Antithetical to New Trends in Schools.

[4] They call it Advancement. We call it Development. Basically, it’s Getting money.

[5] I’ll let you look it up.

[6] Emphasis mine.

[7] Emphasis also mine.

[8] First joyous experience on skimming a recent posting: Wayne State University is a public university. It is therefore bound by the First Amendment. You don’t like that? Congratulations, nobody cares. Second joyous experience, from the same paragraph: Realizing that The First Amendment absolutely protects advocating the moral, philosophical, and social propriety of violence and lawbreaking, so long as the speech is not intended and likely to cause imminent lawless action links to a court case that establishes that protection.

Version 1.0 of 2023-05-16.