Friday, November 2, 2007

Free Speech, PSC-Style

From Brooklyn professor KC Johnson:

Most CUNY professors are familiar with The Patriot Returns. Published by professor emeritus Sharad Karkhanis, TPR is an on-line newsletter that has directed barbs at the extremist leadership of the CUNY union (the Professional Staff Congress) and the largely ineffectual leadership of the CUNY University Faculty Senate. TPR played a key role in last year’s union election, where a new slate headed by Kingsborough professor Rina Yarnisch almost upset incumbent Barbara Bowen, falling 53%-47%. Yarnisch, who was just overwhelmingly reelected KCC chapter chair, is widely expected to challenge Bowen again in two years.

Until last year, the PSC and UFS seemed to be interchangeable, since UFS chair Susan O’Malley was also a member of the PSC executive committee. (I should note that I have my own past with O’Malley, a Kingsborough Community College professor; in 2003, in her capacity as UFS chair, she released a statement criticizing the Board of Trustees’ decision to grant me tenure, erroneously asserting that I had applied for "early tenure" and noting that I hadn’t published anything since arriving at Brooklyn. She was, at the time, only one book and eight scholarly articles short.)

O’Malley has been a regular target of TPR criticism. The newsletter dubbed her as the "Queen of Released Time" for her uncanny ability to spend term after term without ever entering the classroom. (Regular professors at Kingsborough have a 5-4 teaching load.) TPR has mocked O’Malley’s defense of Timothy Shortell’s unsuccessful bid to become chairman of the Brooklyn Sociology Department. The newsletter has criticized O’Malley’s penchant for multiple officeholding. It has ridiculed her record of non-accomplishment in elected positions. TPR opposed O’Malley’s decision to ban from the UFS forum CUNY professors who had used the forum to criticize her policies as UFS chair. Karkhanis has contended that O’Malley’s public positions have harmed CUNY’s image. And TPR celebrated O’Malley’s crushing defeat in last spring’s KCC union elections.

Earlier this year, TPR set its sights on O’Malley’s defense of Mohammed Yousry (a former CUNY adjunct convicted in the Lynne Stewart case) and Susan Rosenberg (a former CUNY adjunct convicted in a Weathermen robbery/murder from the early 1970s).
Karkhanis blasted O’Malley’s "PERSONAL AGENDA of finding jobs for Yousry, Rosenberg and other terrorists," and suggested that "her major goal is to establish a Training Camp to recruit and train, at Kingsborough, people like herself -- misguided, misdirected, misinformed." He made the comment after O’Malley, incredibly, suggested that KCC might hire Yousry (who was, by that point, a convicted felon).

Karkhanis’ rhetoric, obviously, can be over-the-top. That said, at all points in the last decade, O’Malley has been a public official, repeatedly running for union and University-wide offices on slates that Karkhanis (and lots of other CUNY profs) have opposed. Mockery in election campaigns has long been recognized as protected under the First Amendment.

Perhaps most important, Karkhanis could hardly have picked a more fitting target for satire. O’Malley’s positions, which represent almost a caricature of the failed policies of the 1970s and 1980s at CUNY, would have been disastrous for the institution and for CUNY faculty.

O’Malley, however, sees it differently. Today’s New York Sun reports that she has filed a $2 million libel and defamation lawsuit against Karkhanis. Her attorney asserted that Karkhanis’ statements were made with actual malice and intended to "inflict harm through their falsehood."

The lawsuit, of course, defines frivolous: unless O’Malley is going to claim that Yousry and Rosenberg were not convicted terrorists, Karkhanis’ statements about her urging CUNY colleges to hire terrorists were factually true. Rosenberg was a member of a terrorist organization; Yousry was accused and convicted of aiding a convicted terrorist. So what would motivate such a suit?

PSC president Barbara Bowen has suggested that "academic freedom" protected Shortell’s assertion (in a non-academic blog) that all religious people were "moral retards." Will she now similarly apply her flexible definition of the concept, and rebuke O’Malley’s attempt to silence Karkhanis?

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