I hadn’t thought about the Joe Murphy lawsuit for a while until someone commented a couple of days ago on this post from September. I started to reply to the comment, but my reply was getting long enough I thought I’d bring it to the front page. Here’s the comment, in full:
This whole issue is so sad. but it was much more sad for me when one librarian was called a sexual predator, and almost no librarians stood up to say that was wrong.
First, people have said it was wrong. About a month after the story “broke” on blogs and Twitter, the Library Journal wrote an article about the lawsuit. Currently there are 131 comments. There are a number of indignant comments aimed at the defendants for making accusations about Murphy without providing any evidence. Nonetheless, the online commentary I’ve seen has been more against the Murphy lawsuit than against the defendants for calling him a sexual predator. Why might that be? I can only speculate, but here are some of the reasons I think Murphy has taken so much of the heat when ordinarily more people might be supportive. Some of these overlap a bit, but they were the reasons I thought about on my drive to work this morning.
1) The lawsuit trumps the accusation
Most librarians (I suspect) found out about the accusation when they found out about the lawsuit, and the facts of the lawsuit make Murphy look very unsympathetic. Murphy contends that this isn’t a SLAPP suit, but the large amount for damages and the fact that he filed it in Canada rather than the U.S. sure make it look like one. The lawsuit itself is so brazen that it eliminated whatever sympathy some might have been able to muster for Murphy.
2) Librarians like freedom of speech
Calling someone a sexual predator is bad, at least unless it’s true. Regardless, librarians like freedom of speech and they don’t like attempts to silence it. The defendants were speaking freely, if perhaps foolishly, and rather than address them publicly or deny the accusation he decided to sue them in a country with laxer free speech laws than the one he and one of the defendants lives in. I’ve seen numerous comments that hinge on the lawsuit and its silencing effect as the reason they’re opposing Murphy, whereas I’ve seen very few standing up for the rightness of the defendant’s actions as such.
3) Murphy has irritated a lot of people
As I wrote in September, I don’t know Murphy, but I know a lot of people who know him, and I’ve never heard anyone say anything about him that wasn’t derogatory, both personally and professionally. So while people who didn’t know who he was might be against the lawsuit, people who do know him might be unwilling to stand up for him at all. Even if they don’t believe he’s a sexual predator as such, they know that challenging the defendants is equivalent in many people’s eyes with supporting Murphy.
4) This is a very gendered issue
Almost without exception, the comments I’ve seen questioning the defendants or supporting Murphy have been from men, with typical ones being “How do we know? Where is the evidence?,” etc. On the other hand, women seem much more willing to give the defendants the benefit of the doubt or at least be against any attempt to silence them, because they have experienced first or second hand the silencing of women about issues of sexual harassment. The “how do we know?” argument runs both ways, though. Men might say, with some justice, “How do we know they’re not lying? Where is their evidence?” But from a different perspective, we can ask the question another way: “How do we know they’re wrong?” Gender seems to have some effect on the way this question is asked. And until we have more evidence than we have publicly available, we can’t know whether they’re right or wrong, so anyone stating definitively that they’re wrong to make those accusations is making that claim without supporting evidence, which is what many have accused the defendants of doing.
5) This is not about the defendants
It’s very possible to be against the Murphy lawsuit while having no particular sympathy for the defendants. I’ve read comments challenging their motivation, veracity, and even sanity. Let’s say for argument’s sake they’re evil, crazy liars who for some reason decided to target Murphy. Maybe they didn’t like his haircut or his absurd stance on SMS reference and they wanted to go after him. There are more effective ways to deal with such people. Crazy liars can be exposed as such without suing them for $1.25 million dollars. Publicly challenging them and denying the accusation might still make for a messy conversation, but one in which it would be very possible for Murphy to gain some sympathy as a victim of outrageous accusations instead of a perpetrator of an outrageous lawsuit. Suing them in such a way makes everything very public and makes him look bad without making the defendants necessarily look good. In other words, not challenging the defendants isn’t the same thing as supporting their actions or beliefs.
So there are my speculations on the conundrum of why something that might normally be criticized isn’t. Of the various reasons, the first probably explains my writing about the lawsuit without saying much at all about the justness or rightness of the defendants actions. I believe they believe they are in the right, and I know others believe that as well. I have no particular reason to believe them or not believe them, I feel no compunction to defend their actions whatsoever, and I think they could have handled the whole issue in a more effective and less lawsuit-inducing manner. However, while we don’t have enough evidence to say whether they’re definitely in the wrong, we do know about the lawsuit, the amount Murphy’s suing them for, the country it was filed in, and the general trend of men trying to silence women about sexual harassment, and I have no problem being against that lawsuit rather than for or against the defendants. That’s why what little I’ve written hasn’t been defending them so much as criticizing the lawsuit, and if that’s ever dropped I probably won’t have much more to say about the issue.