SLAPPed for Organizing Professors on Campus
Emily Schnee and Libby Garland are professors at Kingsborough Community College in New York City who have been targeted, along with several of their colleagues, for organizing progressive faculty on campus. Their political opponents have used a number of SLAPP-like tactics while trying to silence them.
Answers edited for length and clarity. Emily and Libby spoke with Kirk Herbertson, PTP member and Senior Policy Advisor at EarthRights International.
What led you to become professors at Kingsborough College?
Emily: I worked for many years as a teacher in adult and worker education programs. After I got my Ph.D. in Urban Education, it was important to me to work in a public university with students who are primarily first generation, poor or working class, and from really diverse backgrounds. Kingsborough’s students come from a broad diversity of nationalities, language groups, ethnicities, and races.
Libby: For me, too, Kingsborough is a really good fit for what I care about. After finishing my Ph.D. in American Studies, I taught for a little while in a high school in New York City. I had been writing about immigration history, but decided in the grim political atmosphere of George W. Bush’s reelection that I really didn’t want to go on the standard academic job market. My job at Kingsborough came out of my commitment to education as a practice of social justice.
Why did the progressive faculty on campus decide to organize?
Emily: There have been previous waves of progressive faculty organizing on campus, but there was renewed interest after the election of Donald Trump in the fall of 2016. The primary impetus was to protect our students, because our campus has a number of immigrant and undocumented students. A group of faculty members organized and wrote an open letter to the Kingsborough community, pledging to protect our students against the threats that were implicit and explicit in the Trump campaign. That was our first foray into organizing as a progressive force, which led us to call a meeting of progressive faculty in February 2017 to discuss what else we could do to make our campus a better place. We decided to call ourselves the Progressive Faculty Caucus.
Libby: When we came together and had those initial meetings, it felt so important to have a collective conversation about all of the questions on our campus, because there is no other vehicle for people to do that. There’s nowhere on campus where people actually come together in person or virtually without fear of being shut down or punished.
Emily: Unlike every other campus in the City University of New York system, our local union chapter has always been in the hands of conservative faculty. Kingsborough has very entrenched power structures where department chairs are also powerful in the union chapter, where they control job searches and hiring. It’s a Balkanized campus in a lot of ways, where some of the majors are quite conservative and support that entrenched leadership, while many of the humanities and social sciences faculty are more progressive leaning. So we decided to run a slate of progressive candidates for our local union chapter’s election last spring against the conservative leadership.
What is the Lawfare Project, and what happened in October 2018?
Libby: The Lawfare Project describes itself as an organization that works for Jewish civil rights and free speech in the US and internationally. In reality, it’s an organization that uses lawsuits, often frivolous lawsuits, as a bludgeon against people and institutions that it deems to be anti-Semitic. So for example, it was locked in a long-running conflict with San Francisco State University over alleged anti-Semitism there.
The Lawfare Project was already involved in Kingsborough affairs, because one of the department chairs had worked with them to bring an unsuccessful lawsuit against the college and the university alleging employment discrimination on the basis of anti-Semitism.
On September 17, 2018, we announced that we were going to run our progressive slate in the union elections. Very soon afterwards, on October 3rd, the Lawfare Project sent letters to 15 of us, including 9 people who were officially part of the union slate. The letters threatened us with a lawsuit on behalf of a college administrator who also teaches courses at Kingsborough, based on completely unfounded allegations of anti-Semitism on our part. The letter said that all of our personal and work emails and communications would potentially be subject to investigation and search. It was really intimidating.
Emily: The Lawfare Project is very much at the forefront of a political project to make any critique of the state of Israel be equivalent to anti-Semitism. What was strange about the threat letters was that most of the people targeted, probably 14 out of the 15, had never made any kind of public statement whatsoever about Israel. And I would say at least half of us are Jewish. So it seemed pretty clear to us that this was simply a pretext for putting progressive faculty on notice that our union organizing wasn’t going to be received well.
Was this the first time that you and other progressive faculty members faced threats?
Emily: It definitely wasn’t the first time. Some of our colleagues have been attacked because the curricular materials they’re using are perceived as being pro-Palestinian. Some who write about issues related to Israel and Palestine have had problems with reappointment, tenure, and promotion. About a decade ago, when other progressive faculty members tried to run an opposition union slate, they faced attacks, as well. We were not directly involved then – it was a little before our time, when we were both very new on campus. But I would say this new iteration is like an attack on steroids.
Libby: That’s true. I personally faced a retaliatory complaint after I brought an official internal complaint about gender discrimination. Kingsborough has long had a culture of threats, but this recent wave of threats has reached a new level.
What other tactics have been used to intimidate you?
Libby: The folks who want to shut us down have also deployed the college’s internal disciplinary processes to harass us. In December 2018, the central university’s public safety office called a subset of us to investigate – again – totally unsubstantiated and frivolous accusations of fomenting an anti-Semitic climate, and bizarrely, putting nails in the tires of two of our colleagues’ cars. That was one round.
There is yet another round of investigations against a subset of us, including me, happening now. This time, complaints have been made to the college’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management. We don’t know the details of the complaint, because they will not tell us what is in it. But again, something along the lines of fomenting an anti-Semitic climate in some unspecified way. And this time, the university has hired a large national law firm called Jackson Lewis, known for its union-busting work, to run that investigation. So we are once again being forced to defend ourselves against very shadowy, unspecified accusations.
Emily: And that’s not all. It’s been an ongoing campaign of harassment. All three faculty members who ran as officers on our union slate, as well as a couple of others including Libby, were investigated by the Kingsborough campus police after one of these same individuals alleged that he was bullied at one of our campaign events and prevented from leaving the room. When we asked the college recently about the results of the investigation, they wouldn’t tell us.
Libby: They have also used the press as a weapon of intimidation. It’s hard to know exactly how stories get placed, but they have all been posted on the Lawfare Project’s website in relation to its work on Kingsborough. In some of those pieces, our colleagues have been named and subsequently faced all kinds of harassment, and not just within the college but from random outside people, as well.
How has this impacted you and your colleagues?
Emily: It’s definitely had a chilling effect. Both of our colleagues who’ve had their names in the press received threatening letters and death threats. They’re scared that people are going to find out where they live, and commit acts of violence against them or their family members.
We also believe that the smear campaign that falsely accuses us of anti-Semitism cost us the union election. In conjunction with the Lawfare Project, our opponents were able to activate the press, get all of these articles out there, and then mount a pretty aggressive campaign basically saying that we were a bunch of anti-Semites. We still got 45% of the vote in the union election. But clearly that kind of messaging sowed seeds of doubt in the minds of our colleagues.
Libby: Absolutely. It has done exactly what harassment is supposed to do. It’s cost us a lot of time, emotional energy, and actual physical energy spent in defending ourselves.
Q: How has this impacted the students?
Emily: We just found out that an avowed Neo-Nazi was employed at Kingsborough for several years as an adjunct professor of psychology. This man literally did a podcast with Richard Spencer.
Libby: Some of us asked the administration to make a public statement, like the one the provost at Indiana University made during a similar situation. But our administration responded with angry emails to “be collegial,” to shut up, and not to talk about this. Shut up, don’t talk about this, or we’ll get sued. The college has a culture of fear and a culture of shutting down debate on really important issues.
What is your vision for the future of free speech at Kingsborough College?
Libby: As an educational institution, we should have spaces and forums – both physical and virtual – where we can talk about things that matter, whether it’s about a local union election or the urgent political issues of the day. It should not be so easy to retaliate against folks who do speak up.
What would you say to someone facing a similar threat?
Emily: The saving grace in all of this has been our organizing. These are not individual attacks, but collective threats, so therefore they require collective responses. Despite everything, we are still stronger now as a collective progressive faculty than we were prior to the organizing that began in late fall 2016.
I have a very clear memory of the morning when I opened my email to find the Lawfare Project’s letter threatening a lawsuit. For people facing a similar threat, I would say don’t let the fear paralyze you. It’s human to be scared and to feel invaded when you hear that every email, text message, and voice message you’ve sent to many of your colleagues, on your personal and work email, are subject to discovery. And it’s intimidating when your university makes you sign a legal document saying that you swear to preserve this evidence. But, stay calm, seek allies, and get lots of opinions. There’s a large support community out there if you need it and if you seek it.
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