'Believer' Staffers Claim University Used Public Records Law To Access Their Personal Texts After Zoom Exposure Incident

'Believer' Staffers Claim University Used Public Records Law To Access Their Personal Texts After Zoom Exposure Incident
Screenshot:Las Vegas Review-Journal Youtube (Fair Use)

Staffers at Believer magazine—the prestigious literary magazine that has been in the news over the past month or two after their former editor-in-chief Joshua Wolf Shenk resigned after exposing his genitals during a work call—are claiming that a public record request put in by Motherboard was used to intimidate them and gain access to their personal correspondence.

A Los Angeles Times piece in late April broke the news of the incident that led to Shenk’s resignation both as editor-in-chief of Believer magazine and artistic and executive director of the Black Mountain Institute (both of which are organizations affiliated with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas), framing it as a one-off weird incident not reflective of Shenk’s general conduct in the workplace. However, an open letter published on Medium by anonymous former and current employees at the Believer soon after Shenk’s resignation revealed that this type of behavior was far from out of character. Not only was Shenk reportedly an absent boss “who created a fractured workplace rife with pay and labor inequalities,” but he also had a history of making female Believer staffers feel uncomfortable with his lack of awareness of his own body.

“I wasn’t surprised in the sense that it seemed like something that would happen,” one Believer staffer told Motherboard about the incident where Shenk exposed himself to his coworkers. “Like, of course there would be this. I don’t think it’s fair to categorize him as someone who’s predatory, but you can categorize him as someone who just didn’t care. He didn’t have any respect for boundaries or comfort or what his coworkers deserved from him in terms of attention or time or decency.”

The latest development in this saga came after Motherboard writers reporting on the situation surrounding Shenk filed a public records request with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) seeking documents created by staff at UNLV, Believer, and the Black Mountain Institute (BMI) that mention certain keywords. On May 20, the university contacted Motherboard with follow up questions about their records request, and around the same time sent an email to Believer staff, including contractors and contributors, claiming that under state law they were required to turn over private texts and emails as part of the Motherboard public records request.

Although the Motherboard writers followed up with the university on May 20 clarifying the scope of their inquiry, the university took almost another week to relay that information to the Believer staff—during which time the deadline for staff to submit the records in question to the university passed. Some staffers released information while others entirely ignored the deadline, and a number of them sought legal counsel about whether they were truly compelled to release personal correspondence to UNLV.

On May 26, the university finally told the people subject to Motherboard’s record request that their records were “no longer required,” and stated that they’d only received the clarifications to the initial request that day—despite having actually received them on May 20th. While it’s possible that a technical glitch interfered with the process, another public records request made by Motherboard on May 20 was processed on the same day—making the delay in updating the staffers on the true scope of the request more than a little bit suspicious.

In the eyes of the Believer and BMI staffers, this apparent mishap was just the latest attempt from university leadership to control and silence them. “We’re not worried about the requesters, about you guys,” a Believer staffer said to Motherboard. “We’re worried about what university officials are going to be reading our private correspondence, much of which is critical of the university. “

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