“Giant Gavel” by Sam Howzit

May 16, 2017; N.J. Advance Media

A strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) is a lawsuit that is intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition. Such lawsuits have been made illegal in many jurisdictions on the grounds that they impede freedom of speech.

In 2015, NPQ covered the New Jersey Charter School Association’s political disagreement with Rutgers University Professor Julia Sass Rubin. Earlier this month, we learned Professor Rubin had been totally vindicated by her university of the ethics violations filed at that time by the NJCSA. Professor Rubin’s experience offers some lessons that are relevant in an age that has become even more heated and adversarial and when the role of fact and science in policymaking has been under attack.

Rubin was attacked as misusing her university position by publishing the findings of her research. The research looked at enrollment patterns in New Jersey’s charter schools and found, to the displeasure of charter school advocates, that current policies and practices resulted in “lower rates of economically disadvantaged, Limited English Proficient, and special education classified students in charter schools result in those students being concentrated at higher rates within the host district schools. This increases segregation and impacts the quality of education that districts can provide and the financial resources available to pay for that education.”

Rather than dispute the findings with data of their own and allow the dialogue to go on based on the strength of the results, the charter association chose to attack the messenger. They formally charged that by publishing her work, testifying before public bodies based on her findings and speaking as an advocate for public schools, she had violated “the New Jersey Conflicts of Interest Law, the Uniform Ethics Code, [and the] Rutgers Code of Ethics and Rutgers’s policies” and should be sanctioned.

Even though the charges were not difficult to defend on the facts, they initiated a process with the state ethics board and the university process that took almost two years to complete. Professor Rubin saw the situation quite clearly at the time:

Aside from demonstrating the NJ Charter School Association’s stunning lack of morality, this also is a chilling attack on personal and academic freedoms. If Professors of Public Policy are not allowed to testify or write editorials that displease well-funded constituents, we are truly in trouble as a country.

This story came to a happy end. After the state board made no finding, the university found none of the allegations were supported by the evidence. Yet, this remains a cautionary tale. The ease with which political opponents can make the debate personal can have a very chilling effect.

We ended our piece two years ago with a challenge to others to speak out in defense of free, fact-based speech: “We’re waiting for state and national nonprofit associations to speak out against this travesty, as they should, and stand up for the core nonprofit value of free speech.” While Professor Rubin’s reputation and ability to freely go on with her important work has been upheld, it is more important than ever for others to speak loudly. As we see scientists removed from advisory panels and facts that don’t support political beliefs discarded, the collective voice is still critical.—Martin Levine