When Michael Farris Threatened To Send The FBI After A Homeschool Kid
By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator
“Once upon a time, long before Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook, there was a web blogging service called Xanga.”
~NBC, June 2013
It was the beginning of December last year when the words lit up my computer screen like lights on a Christmas tree:
“PATRICK HENRY COLLEGE CHANCELLOR MICHAEL FARRIS THREATENS TO SUE QUEERPHC!”
I had no idea what QueerPHC was. But I knew Patrick Henry College. It was that college I thought about going to back when I competed in NCFCA. Honestly, apart from a few friends from my debate days going to PHC, I hadn’t given as much as a passing thought to PHC in the years since.
In fact, I probably would still be unaware of happenings at PHC — still unaware of the existence of QueerPHC — if it were not for Michael Farris.
So in a sense, I need to thank Michael Farris for bringing QueerPHC to my attention. If Farris never threatened to sue the group, I — like a lot of people, probably — wouldn’t have known anything about it.
But threaten to sue he did. And that is why I am writing this story.
A little background information:
In July of 2012, a group of Patrick Henry College alumni got together and created a blog. Their very first blog post was on July 3, where they said:
“This is a collaborative blog produced by several Patrick Henry College (PHC) students, current and former. We, being a group of people, do have varying opinions and beliefs, but one thing we do share in common is our desire to help and encourage other Patrick Henry College students, current and former, in any way that we can.”
The purpose of the blog was to provide education and information about LGBT issues, because PHC itself did not offer such education and information:
“Patrick Henry College does not offer courses in Queer Studies, Sex Ed, or Gender Equality. However, these are issues that are of pressing importance in our culture today and are of importance to us personally. We hope to use this blog to provide information on those topics that are taboo at PHC.”
For the next few months, Queer PHC posted about a variety of issues, all without any public disturbance from PHC itself. The pseudonymous writing team of Kate Kane, Captain Jack, and Alan Scott wrote about growing up queer, people denying the existence of LGBT people, ex-gay therapy, and how the student newspaper, Patrick Henry College Herald, addressed homosexuality issues.
But then the proverbial shit hit the metaphorical fan.
Over the first weekend in December, Michael Farris, the college’s chancellor, used his own Facebook page to contact Queer PHC and threaten them with a lawsuit:
This page is in violation of our copyright of the name Patrick Henry College. You are hereby notified that you must remove this page at once. On Monday we will began [sic] the legal steps to seek removal from Facebook and from the courts if necessary. In this process of this matter we can seek discovery from Facebook to learn your identity and seek damages from you as permitted by law. The best thing for all concerned is for you to simply remove this page.
Find another way to communicate your message without using the term ‘Patrick Henry College’ in any manner.”
The problems with what Farris said and did are astounding. Not only is this a completely nonsensical interpretation of copyright law, not only is it slightly outrageous that Farris would pretty much threaten to “out” the individuals behind the group, but Farris used a personal Facebook page to communicate a legal threat on behalf of an entire college. Did he consult with the college’s board before making a legal threat on behalf of the college? Did they approve of the Facebook message? (Were they even aware of it beforehand?) These are important questions, especially considering what happened next.
What happened next was the Streisand effect. So incomprehensible was Farris’ strategy of internet bullying and censorship based on false legal issues that his threat suddenly exploded — Gangnam style — across the Internet.
On December 3, New York Magazine immediately scooped the story. Then the local newspaper. Then a flurry of bloggers, including Libby Anne at Patheos. Then Inside Higher Ed. Then the Chronicle of Higher Education. Even the New York Times picked it up.
Of course, as soon as the controversy started (and probably once the PHC board realized what a bizarre and inappropriate action Farris had undertaken), Farris recanted — this time through a public comment on Queer PHC’s status:
But it was too late. The PR damage had begun.
When I heard about Farris threatening a perfectly legal Facebook group with an unfounded, frivolous lawsuit, I was floored. What better way to damage the credibility and reputation of not only PHC, but the homeschooling movement, by using abusive techniques like threatening fellow professed Christians with erroneous legal action? Not only fellow professed Christians, but your own former students?
But something about what Farris did to Queer PHC didn’t feel surprising. In fact, it felt familiar.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. But I was having a sense of deja vu.
Eventually, it struck me. And I went searching through my vast archive of saved emails from my old Hotmail account. And I found it.
In the early 2000s, when all of us homeschool speech and debate alumni were either still in high school or just beginning college, we socialized on Xanga. Xanga is to social media what Grandmaster Flash is to rap: really, really old school. Created in 1999, Xanga was around before Facebook, even pre-dating when most of us were on Myspace. Xanga was kind of like an public online diary: you could make posts, like other peoples’ posts, and subscribe to other people to stay connected. And that was about it.
(And yes, if you’re morbidly curious, my Xanga is still up. So feel free to search my teenage angst and amateur attempts at poetry, philosophy, theology, and public diary-writing for evidence you can use against me in the future.)
I created my Xanga profile on March 18, 2004. Most of my close friends from NCFCA and CFC had Xanga accounts as well. As this was really the beginning of social media, there weren’t really any parents using Xanga. It was primarily a teenage activity.
After a few months, two separate individuals created parody Michael Farris accounts. One was created on May 28, 2004. The other was created on July 26, 2004. (As you can see from these links, the accounts have since been scrubbed clean.) I don’t really remember much from the later account that was created, but I remember the first one because a friend of mine made it. It was clearly marked as a parody account, did not attempt to impersonate Farris to deceive anyone, and wasn’t even “offensive.” While a lot of us debaters were “punks” in one sense or another, we were still conservative Christian homeschoolers. So my friend’s parody account of Michael Farris did not involve things like dick jokes. I remember Fake Farris’s posts being along the lines of “I AM MICHAEL FARRIS AND OMG HOMESCHOOLING WILL SAVE THE WORLD!!!”
In 2004, on Xanga, you could “subscribe” to other peoples’ accounts. This would be the equivalent of “liking” or “following” a Facebook page today. Since I was one of the only people that used my real name on Xanga, and I was subscribed to the michael_farris parody account, I was the only person that Farris could recognize to contact about the account.
Oh yes, he contacted me about the parody account! Perhaps I just got ahead of myself. In 2004, Michael Farris — President of Patrick Henry College — was apparently monitoring what high school homeschool debaters were doing on a social media site. And as soon as he saw a parody account of himself, he went into militant mode.
On Wednesday, July 28, 2004, nearly a decade before he employed erroneous legal threats against Queer PHC, Michael Farris emailed me. In another way that this parallels the QueerPHC debacle, Farris contacted me with his official “PHC Office of the President” email address. The following is a screenshot of what he said, along with the text:
From: “PHC Office of the President” <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Ryan is this you?
Date: Wed, 28 Jul 2004 17:17:34 -0400
This is Mike Farris–the real one from Patrick Henry College.
I see you as a subscriber to a xanga website named Michael_Farris. Your posts there seem to indicate that you know who this is who is running this.
I just went through a difficult time shutting down another xanga site called “michaelfarris”.
Here’s what he needs to do. Delete absolutely everything from the site. Then, send me the password to the site so that I can take control of it so that neither he nor anyone else can ever steal my identity in this manner again. If he does this I absolutely promise I will take no action of any kind against him. If he does not do so (and do so promptly) I will go after him with vigor.
It may seem funny to some, but it is not funny in the least to me. I will turn this over to the FBI if I have to. But seems it seems pretty obvious that this person is or was an NCFCA debater I wanted to try to quietly end the problem without the need for drastic measures.
Can you help?
Yes, almost a decade before Michael Farris tried to bully and threaten Queer PHC with a frivolous lawsuit because he didn’t like what they were doing, Farris also threatened a Christian homeschool kid with civil and criminal action — even going so far as to invoke the FBI. As if the FBI would’ve given a @#$% about some kid’s Xanga account in 2004. But we were young. We had no idea. I was terrified. I immediately told my friend. He was terrified as well. What Michael Farris hoped to accomplish — using inaccurate legal concepts to coerce a highschooler into turning over the account information to a perfectly legal parody account — was successful.
A decade later, Farris apparently still uses the same tactics.
The funny thing is, this email I received would’ve likely slipped away into oblivion, covered by the dust of my long-forgotten memories. But in the same way that Queer PHC’s existence occurred to me because of Farris’ threat against the group, my remembrance of the email was likewise resurrected. To some, the very fact that I am bringing it into the open might seem petty and vindictive. But I do not reveal it for those purposes.
I am publicizing this email because of the trend I have repeatedly seen from the leaders of the Christian homeschooling movement. I am remembering the censorship employed by NCFCA leaders when forensics alumni, coaches, and students attempted to protest BJU’s history of institutionalized racism. I am remembering a personal censorship, which I will talk about next week during our Resolved: series. I am remembering how Farris went after Queer PHC. I am remembering how HSLDA chose to block former homeschool students from its Facebook page for speaking up about abuse during our #HSLDAMustAct campaign.
What I experienced a decade ago, what Queer PHC experienced last year — these are not isolated incidents. They are symptoms of a problem: the problem of how this movement chooses to interact with its whistleblowers. It has groomed us to “take back the culture.” Yet when we try to do so, the movement suddenly realizes “the culture” we want to take back is not the Evil Candyland of Liberalism, but our very own home — homeschooling itself.
If you are not toeing the line, if you question the movement’s assumptions, if you even dare to make parody accounts — the movement wants to shut you down and silence you. And Michael Farris led the way, is leading the way, by the choices he made and continues to make.
Considering Farris’ railings against Obama’s “tyranny” as of late, I cannot help but wonder: how exactly does bullying and censorship of young people demonstrate the ideals of freedom?