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MIT hands Noble contempt charge

By Andrea Lamberti

Former MIT Professor David F. Noble has publicly released documents relating to his tenure denial, prompting MIT to charge him with contempt of court. The dispute has revived his case, which now seems destined to carry on for several additional months.

On April 5, MIT filed a complaint for contempt of court against Noble, claiming that his release of certain documents violated the terms of the court order settling Noble's 1986 tenure suit. Noble released the documents that same day, before the date specified by the settlement of the lawsuit, MIT lawyers charge.

At a Middlesex Superior Court hearing Tuesday afternoon, Judge James McHugh postponed a decision on the contempt complaint until the confidentiality status of individual evaluations on Noble's tenure case has been resolved.

The letters of evaluation, written by professors, were the only documents not automatically made public by the settlement of Noble's lawsuit against MIT. The court order outlining the terms of the settlement stipulates that evaluations could not be made public until "30 days after notice had been sent" to all evaluators.

In addition to the contempt complaint, MIT also filed for an extension of the time available for evaluators to request that their statements remain confidential. At the hearing this week, the judge decided to maintain the current confidentiality order for an additional 30 days, said Michael N. Sheetz, a lawyer at the firm of Palmer and Dodge, which represents MIT.

Noble, now a professor in the department of history at Drexel University, was denied tenure in MIT's Program in Science, Technology, and Society in February 1984. Then an associate professor in STS, Noble later filed a $1.5 million lawsuit charging that MIT had denied him tenure on political, not academic, grounds.

The suit was settled March 5, one day before it was to have gone to court. The settlement stipulated that all documents be made public and that MIT conduct a formal review of its tenure practices.

Noble said he released the documents April 5, in accordance with a draft of the court order which he received by facsimile March 4. This draft specified that the documents could be made public 30 days after the settlement, or April 5.

During negotiations, both sides exchanged drafts, drawing attention to any changes in wording. However, Noble accused MIT of slipping in an important change without drawing attention to it. He said MIT changed the date on which documents could be released, from 30 days after the settlement to 30 days after evaluators had been notified.

Notices to evaluators were mailed March 29 and 30, according to Michael N. Sheetz, an attorney with the firm of Palmer and Dodge, which represents MIT. This meant that under the settlement's final language the documents were required to remain confidential for an additional 25 days.

Noble said he did not notice the change in wording from the draft to the final copy, and that the change was an attempt by MIT to "delay as much as possible any release of any documents." He said it was an attempt by MIT to extend the confidentiality period for at least 60 days.

Sheetz said, "The initial proposal from MIT was for a 60-day period . . . to send out letters to evaluators and to receive their responses." He said that period was necessary to communicate with the 26 different evaluators, some of whom had written their evaluations as much as 10 years ago.

According to Sheetz, MIT applied for the extension 10 days early: "Under any construction of the order, April 15 was the earliest date that you could possibly divulge information. [It was] up to [Noble] to find out when [the letters to evaluators] had been sent. Noble was the one risking violating [the order], and in effect [he] did violate the order, not MIT."

Sheetz' reference to April 15 stems from a clause in the settlement giving MIT 10 days to notify evaluators, and 30 days for evaluators to respond.

The judge said he did not feel the wording of the order was ambiguous. "It seems the language of the order is written plainly enough." He also ordered parties "not to make any further disclosures."

Within the next month, MIT will present the court with evaluators' responses, and the judge will hold a hearing for evaluators with serious objections to disclosure of their evaluations, if there are any.

Then, all evaluations whose authors do not object to disclosure will be released. At that point, the judge "will have a hearing . . . [to] deal with the question of contempt and [a] remedy for it."

Robert E. Sullivan, another of MIT's lawyers, asked the court to require Noble to inform MIT which documents have been "released, and to whom, on what days." Sullivan also asked the court to force recipients of those documents to keep them confidential.

The judge denied that request, saying he would not consider the issue of prior restraint or try to "capture that which has been set loose."

Noble said after the hearing that this request made MIT's intent clear. "Sullivan's trying to find out who got the documents, and get [them] back," Noble said. "What they're trying to do is get everything back in the box."

Noble would only say he had sent the documents to "all the leading media."

Noble also claimed that MIT had a draft of letters to evaluators ready as early as March 7, but deliberately withheld them until March 29. He said the letters to evaluators could have easily been sent within the 10 days stipulated by the order.

But Sheetz said that at Noble's request, the letters to evaluators were a joint effort, and went through five drafts before March 29, when the final copy was available.

Noble said of MIT, "They are so sleazy and have been consistently, and they're accusing me of bad faith.

"MIT is trying to harass me [and] using every deviousness to try and get out of the settlement they were compelled to make after five years of litigation. Now that the documents have been released, the public and academic community will be in a position to understand the reasons for MIT's discomfort."

Sheetz said, "MIT is not about to let Noble get away with his unilateral disclosure of material in violation of the court order, without giving the individual evaluators an opportunity a chance to speak their mind."