Should Academic Online Behavior Go to Court?

March 26, 2014, 11:55 am


Imagine if Daffy Duck had email, Twitter and Facebook.

Here’s an interesting case that has been percolating along for some time and should be of interest to all of us in the academic blogosphere. Raphael Haim Gold, 54, who is the son of Norman Golb, as New York Times reporter John Leland puts it, “a controversial Dead Sea Scrolls scholar,” has been successfully prosecuted for impersonating and harassing other scholars who have found fault with his father’s scholarship. The conviction is now being heard on appeal.

For reasons that remain somewhat mysterious, Golb Junior defamed his father’s intellectual detractors for three years via various forms of Sock Puppetry and Internet impersonation.  As Leland writes:

Mr. Golb’s online campaign was chiefly directed at his father’s most bitter rival, Lawrence H. Schiffman, who was chairman of Jewish studies at New York University. Dr. Schiffman and Mr. Golb’s father, Norman Golb, a professor at the University of Chicago, have published opposing theories about the origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Dr. Schiffman says they were written by a Jewish sect, the Essenes, who lived near the caves where they were found; Dr. Golb says the scrolls were probably written by many different groups and collected and hidden in the caves during a Roman war. The scholarly community has sided with Dr. Schiffman; Dr. Golb is largely an outlier.

In 2008, Raphael Golb began sending email messages in Dr. Schiffman’s name, apparently confessing to having plagiarized the work of Dr. Golb. Recipients included other scholars, N.Y.U. officials and Dr. Schiffman’s graduate students, at least one of whom believed the email was genuine.

During his relentless three-year battle, Mr. Golb, who has a Ph.D. from Harvard and a law degree from N.Y.U., once described himself to a relative as “a dedicated, in-the-know adversary who is out to get them, and there’s simply nothing they can do about it.”

Golb is looking at six months in the slammer and five years probation after his conviction on one felony and 28 misdemeanor charges.

Yesterday Golb’s case was argued by civil rights and criminal defense attorney Ronald Kuby in the New York State Court of Appeals. The state argues that “Mr. Golb’s email and blog campaigns were clearly intended to harass and annoy, and therefore constituted criminal harassment.” There is also the little matter of impersonating real people and manufacturing professionally damaging “confessions.” Kuby argues that such behavior might be “rude,” “boorish,” “obnoxious” but would only be criminal if Golb had profited economically from these activities.

Part of what makes this story newsworthy, I suppose, is a son who is not an academic whose destructive behaviors were driven by his over identification with his father’s intellectual reputation. However, it’s too bad that Leland (or Kuby, for that matter) didn’t get at the bigger story here: that there are numerous academics who are well-known for this kind of behavior who are never sanctioned for it in any way. Angry, abusive emails get copied, or blind copied, to everyone in the department: any message (foolishly) sent in response is forwarded to sympathetic friends, students and colleagues even though it was meant as a private communication. Such colleagues have volatile relations with friends, and identify those with whom they have differences as enemies. Public insult, character assassination and intimidation on social media are their recourse for virtually every kind of intellectual, personal and political difference. They draw large groups of web adherents who themselves go on to harass their hero’s chosen enemies via blog comments, Twitter, Storify and Facebook.

There’s nothing wrong with a good, solid argument, but this isn’t what academic web harassers are interested in. Primarily, they are interested in themselves, and getting a lot of attention. As Kuby himself admitted, such people experience “psychic joy” and “savage pleasure” from their activities. It is never clear to me, when I am being attacked by such a person, that it is really about me at all, even when the person actually knows me, as has sometimes been the case. Instead, I have become an opportunity to act out some inner psychic drama. I’m pretty sure, for example, that Golb does not need to go to jail. Unfortunately, there is no way to revoke his Internet privileges, but intensive psychotherapy seems like a good idea. No emotionally healthy person would do the things he has done — and that, I am sorry to say, applies to some of our colleagues as well.

If this is all new to you, then welcome to the Academic Narcissism Olympics, Electronic Edition! It will be interesting to see what kind of attention universities pay to the outcome in the Golb case, if they do at all. In my view, faculty should be proactive in starting these conversations. Administrators will move to the most repressive positions on social media use, making what has been a generative mode of exchange more dangerous for those with the least privilege. In addition, we claim to want to given ourselves, and the Internet has given the sort of vengeful people who have always existed in or around universities an enhanced capacity to cause psychic distress and career damage to others. We do little to teach web ethics and responsible use of electronic communication. As a result, irresponsible and dishonest Internet behavior is also becoming more common among graduate students, some of whom seem to see it as a career strategy for becoming popular writers, while others see pseudonymous trolling as a legitimate way to reverse power relationships.

We have seen universities taking action in relation to social media in the last few years, but these have been troubling moments for free speech and academic freedom. The ones we hear about, at least, tend to focus on a faculty member using electronic communication to express a religious or political belief that some right wing organization finds noxious.

Why aren’t we being proactive, and crafting the academic web that we want to see?

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