Legal threats from @McLNeuro shut down #MeTooSTEM journalism event at @CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan [Updated Nov 8]

BethAnn McLaughlin/WikiMedia Commons/MIT Media Lab
Not so long ago, neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin was a major leader of the #MeToo movement in the sciences, which is often identified with the hashtag #MeTooSTEM and the Twitter handle @MeTooSTEM. McLaughlin's unsuccessful fight for tenure at Vanderbilt University, no doubt denied because of her strong advocacy for the victims of sexual misconduct, inspired many #MeToo activists to get involved in the fight.

But recently, McLaughlin has become at least as well known for dividing the #MeTooSTEM movement, as other leaders and activists have begun leaving the organization she leads (known as MeTooSTEM) in droves. First broken in BuzzFeed by reporter Peter Aldhous, news of the defections has garnered headlines in several other publications:

Science: "Group devoted to combating sexual harassment in science is in turmoil as leaders exit."

Inside Higher Education: "What's Up With MeTooSTEM?"

The Daily Dot: "MeTooSTEM leadership crumbles as women of color resign."

These and other articles described how an imperious style of leadership, combined with an apparent zealous conviction that McLaughlin alone personified the #MeTooSTEM movement, led to division within an important movement that needs unity and solidarity now more than ever. Those not directly involved in the organization often felt the sting of McLaughlin's Tweets, which rightly excoriated sexists and abusers but all too often constituted attacks on individuals who were in reality allies. (Full disclosure: I am among those who got in her line of fire.)

In her zeal, McLaughlin has now done something that only helps the sexual predators of the world: She forced the cancellation of a panel of #MeTooSTEM reporters organized by the Science Writers in New York (SWINY), which was to be held on Thursday, Nov 7, at the City University of New York journalism school.

The event featured myself, a veteran of #MeTooSTEM reporting who has named 31 sexual abusers and bullies to date, and Meredith Wadman, a reporter for Science who has been one of the most active and prolific journalists working in this area (Wadman just wrote about the resignation of NIH's Antonello Bonci in the wake of sexual harassment allegations.)

The event was to have been moderated by Jeanne Garbarino, Director of RockEDU Science Outreach at Rockefeller University in New York City. But earlier this week, McLaughlin, Tweeting under her handle @McLNeuro, began objecting to the event's use of the hashtag #MeTooSTEM in describing the work of Meredith and I (we called ourselves #MeTooSTEM reporters, which indeed we are.) I weighed in to say that this hashtag, like all Twitter hashtags, could be freely used by anyone, and in fact is used by thousands of people on social media to identify with what is a movement and not just an organization. And Jeanne repeatedly tried to assure McLaughlin that we would make it clear at the event that we had no affiliation with her organization.

But that was not enough for McLaughlin. Last night she wrote to the event's organizers, threatening legal action if the event took place, on the grounds that we were appropriating a hashtag that belonged to her and her organization (McLaughlin claimed that a trademark application on the hashtag was pending.) SWINY's leaders, not sure of their legal position and not being able to find out before the panel tomorrow evening, cancelled the event. I expressed my disagreement and disappointment with this decision, but I understand why they felt they had to do it. **

But the key thing here is McLaughlin's destructive, negative actions. She argued that people would be confused and think that we were claiming we were acting on behalf of her organization. This is patent nonsense, and McLaughlin presented no evidence that it was true; nor did our assurances that we would make the distinction clear to people attending the event make any difference to her.

In other words, McLaughlin preferred to see an event that could provide valuable guidance to science journalists and writers--and perhaps even inspire more of them to join this reporting beat--cancelled at the last minute. She had the choice of admonishing us over the use of the hashtag, if that is how she felt, and accepting that we would assure the audience we were not her and her group. She had the choice of allowing his important event to take place. But that's not the choice she made. And in threatening us with legal action, she hurt the #MeTooSTEM movement she claims to champion, and privileged territoriality and personal ego over the needs of victims and survivors to find ways to tell their stories.

BethAnn McLaughlin should be thrilled that the #MeTooSTEM hashtag has spread throughout the sciences and become a banner for everyone fighting sexual misconduct and abuse, just as the #MeToo hashtag has spread throughout the world and become a rallying cry for justice and equity. Instead, she regards it as some kind of brand, a trademark, with her as the proprietor.

I regret very much that an event we spent many weeks organizing and publicizing will not go forward. And I hope that #MeToo and #MeTooSTEM activists, as described above, will reject divisive leaders who apparently care more about their own priorities than the movement they are supposed to be spearheading.

** I've tried to go easy on my friends and colleagues in SWINY, because they were in a tough spot and felt vulnerable and exposed to possible legal action. However, they made the decision to cancel the event without consulting with me and Meredith Wadman, and before they had any chance to consult with an attorney. By caving to pressure from McLaughlin, SWINY did not set a good example for the science writers, journalists, and students who were planning to attend. #MeToo reporting requires a certain degree of mettle and courage in the face of threats. I have been threatened with lawsuits a number of times, although no one has followed through on them (so far.) And the victims and survivors who talk with reporters, usually as a last resort when their institutions have failed them, take far more risks than the journalists helping them to tell their stories.

Afterthoughts, Nov 8:

If anything good comes out of this sorry episode, it might be a renewed realization of the important role that journalists have played in the growth and development of the #MeToo and #MeTooSTEM movements. I recounted some of this history, briefly, in a recent piece about my own reporting on these issues for the Columbia Journalism Review. A huge amount of credit goes to reporter Azeen Ghorayshi and BuzzFeed, who broke the first major #MeTooSTEM story--about astrophysicist Geoff Marcy of UC Berkeley--in October 2015, more than two years before the Harvey Weinstein exposes made #MeToo a household word and won Pulitzers for the New York Times and The New Yorker. This was followed by #MeTooSTEM scoops by Jeff Mervis at Science (astrophysicist Christian Ott of CalTech; Azeen did an important followup on this story), Amy Harmon of the Times (Jason Lieb of the U of Chicago), my own story for Science about paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond of the American Museum of Natural History, and many others down to the present day.

All of these exposes of sexual misconduct shared a central feature: Courageous victims and survivors, fed up and disillusioned by the failures of their institutions to take action despite complaints, turned to journalists as a last resort to get their stories out and try to prevent further abuse by these predators. And the resulting stories led to concrete results: In every example above, the abusers were forced to resign from their institutions, thus making students and other colleagues just a little bit safer.

Are there journalists out there who have reported on #MeToo issues for money, fame, or self-aggrandizement? I'm sure there are, but there are not many. These investigations are difficult, depressing, and often thankless. And any reporter who cannot earn the trust of victims and survivors will not last on this beat for very long. I've been doing it for four years now, and I really wish I could quit. But nearly every week I am approached by new victims, survivors, or their friends and supporters, who have seen what the power of publicity can do to shine light on abuses and bring justice about. That's why #MeToo and #MeTooSTEM reporters do it, and that's why we will keep on doing it.

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