KC Johnson, a Brooklyn College American History professor, is a veteran academic rabblerouser. So it was unsurprising when, last Spring, after allegation surfaced that three Duke University lacrosse players had raped and assaulted a local woman, he decided to weigh in on an open letter signed by 88 members of the Duke arts and sciences faculty.
The letter thanked protesters who had appeared at a rally to condemn the accused students before they were found guilty in a court of law.
“It communicated to a fair-minded person in Durham that the people who taught these guys believed they were guilty,” he said.
Mr. Johnson’s posts, on an academic blog called Cleopatria, formed the seeds of a personal blog he then launched to cover the case.
Called Durham-in-Wonderland, over the past year it has become an influential source for those skeptical of the case against the students, two of whom thanked him personally when they were exonerated by the North Carolina Attorney general last week.
On a recent afternoon, Mr. Johnson, 39, who usually appears in photographs Tucker Carlson-style in a bow-tie, wore jeans and a loose white shirt. Sitting on his desk in a 1950s-era building was a copy of The News & Observer’s issue the day after the announcement, which he has held on to because it shows one of the accused students cracking a rare smile.
(Mr. Johnson, who traveled to North Carolina 12 times to cover developments in the case, blogged live from the suite where the players and their lawyers watched the press conference.)
“When I got hired my clients said ‘You’ve got to read this guy–he knows all about this case,’” said James Cooney III, a lawyer representing one of the lacrosse players. “I was shaking my head saying, ‘The last thing I need is a history professor telling me how I run a legal case.’”
But before long the blog became his first read in the morning, and he used information obtained by Mr. Johnson to argue for a change of venue.
The original ad from the “Group of 88” was taken down from the Duke website, but Mr. Johnson had a still-working link. He also reported that a woman who would become a staffer on the District Attorney’s re-election campaign had called for a crowd to burn down the house where the alleged incident took place.
People in North Carolina started talking to me. I mean I’m a professor, not a reporter, but you know, the blog broke a few stories,” he said sheepishly. “This was not my intent when the thing started.”
More than 500 posts later, Mr. Johnson is co-writing a book on the affair with National Review writer Stuart Taylor, due out in September. He plans to continue his blog at least through the June ethics trial of District Attorney Michael Nifong for, among other things, withholding exculpatory DNA evidence from defense lawyers.
Prior to this Mr. Johnson was most famous for a tenure battle that he fought and won. Denied tenure in 2002, he challenged the basis for it, concluding that colleagues had voted against him because he had been deemed “uncollegial.” The Board of Trustees for the City University of New York reversed the decision.
It appears that at least some of Mr. Johnson’s own experience prepared him to come at this story with an academic’s insider perspective, and a questioning attititude toward what he calls “Academic Groupthink.”
“This is one of the darkest episodes in the history of American higher education,” said Mr. Johnson, referring to the letter signed by those 88 professors. “These were people who seemed to me to have betrayed the profession. They were supposed to stand up for due process and instead they went after their students.”