Philosophy professors threatened with lawsuit over blog post

Two UBC philosophy professors have recently become the targets of threatened litigation over a blog post.

On July 2, 2014, Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins, who was promoted to full professor at UBC’s philosophy department the day before, wrote a blog post on her resolutions for her professional career. The blog post, which does not mention the names of any other professors, says that Jenkins pledges to “treat other philosophers with respect” and “not treat other philosophers or their work in ways that are belittling, trivializing and/or exclusionary.”

Brian Leiter, who is the director of University of Chicago’s Center for Law, Philosophy and Human Values as well as the editor of the prominent Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR), then sent Jenkins an email in which he accuses Jenkins of writing about him, threatens future litigation and accuses her of coming off as a “sanctimonious asshole.”

On September 24, 2014, a group of 21 philosophers, many of them from UBC, released The September Statement, which is a letter of solidarity with Jenkins and a refusal to work with the PGR until Leiter steps down as editor. The statement was later signed by 624 other philosophers across North America, Asia and Europe.

Leiter then agreed to step down from his role as editor following the publication of the 2014-2015 issue of the PGR. On December 15, Paul B. Schabas, Leiter’s Toronto lawyer, sent Jenkins and her husband and other popular UBC philosophy professor, Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa, a letter demanding that Jenkins and Ichikawa post an apology, for "misleading members of the philosophical community and other readers of the September Statement about these issues," at the top of the September Statement for at least six months in order to avoid his taking the matter to court.

In the letter, Schablas said that Leiter is "prepared to seek redress in the courts in Canada for the statements [Jenkins and Ichikawa] have made about him, and to have a full airing of the issues and the cause or causes of Jenkins’ medical condition."

Ichikawa declined comment on details of situation because of the possibility of a future lawsuit.

Roger D. McConchie, a lawyer for Jenkins and Ichikawa, said that while it is too early to stipulate about a potential response before an actual lawsuit is filed, he has been advising his clients about potential courses of action if Leiter proceeds with the matter.

“At this point, there are any number of defences in the law of defamation that would appear to be available on the facts of this case and it remains to be seen, therefore, whether this fella sues and if he sues, what he claims,” said McConchie.

McConchie also said that he has responded to Leiter’s letter on behalf of Jenkins and Ichikawa.

“I have sent a letter back to Leiter’s lawyer saying that my clients took the position that anything they had posted on the internet was lawful under both the laws of Canada and the United States,” said McConchie.

A number of philosophy graduate students have also spoken out in support of Jenkins and Ichikawa.

Madeleine Ransom, a doctorate student with Ichikawa, said that seeing this situation unfold has been particularly troubling for her, as she respects and admires Jenkins' success in a male-dominated profession. In particular, Ransom was worried that this type of situation might discourage other graduate students, particularly females, to pursue further studies in philosophy.

“The message it sends to young philosophers is not to speak against those who are in positions of power when you disagree with their behaviour and this is exactly the opposite of what we need in philosophy right now,” said Ransom. “It’s extremely counterproductive if we want to continue reforming the discipline to be more inclusive.”

According to Jasper Heaton, another doctorate philosophy student with Jenkins, Leiter's decision to proceed with the lawsuit is an attack on individual freedom of expression. Heaton also said that threats of litigation could discourage other scholars, particularly those who are new to academia, from speaking out against problematic behaviour among senior members.

“By displaying willingness to sue, Leiter has immediately created a culture of fear within the profession: there is now an exceedingly strong disincentive for more junior members of the profession to speak out against what they may view as his, or others, abhorrent behaviour,” said Heaton.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said that Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins had received tenure in July 2014. In actuality, she was promoted to full professor, a higher title. The article has been updated to reflect this fact.