Matthew Gartner and Dominic Wetzel: SLAPPed for Progressive Organizing on a College Campus

Three years ago, Protect the Protest interviewed two professors at Kingsborough Community College (KCC) in Brooklyn, New York, Libby Garland and Emily Schnee, who described the baseless allegations of antisemitism used to silence and marginalize them and other progressive faculty on campus. We wanted to check back in with some of their colleagues at KCC to see how things are going.

Libby and Emily put us in touch with two other Kingsborough professors, Matthew Gartner and Dominic Wetzel, who have been harassed, investigated, and SLAPPed for organizing around progressive issues. Matthew is a professor in Kingsborough’s English Department, and Dominic is a Sociology professor in the Behavioral Sciences Department.

Kingsborough is part of the City University of New York (CUNY), the nation’s largest urban public university, with 25 institutions serving more than 275,000 degree-seeking students each year. Kingsborough is the only community college in Kings County, NY – a slice of New York City better known as Brooklyn.

Q: What led you to work at Kingsborough?

Dominic: I came to work at KCC because I’m committed to the larger social justice vision of CUNY. Sixty percent of CUNY students come from families that make less than $30,000 a year. CUNY is tapped into so many different initiatives, creating social mobility possibilities for immigrants, people of color, low-income families, and the working class. It’s important work.

Matthew: While earning my PhD in English from CUNY I taught as an adjunct at a number of CUNY colleges, including LaGuardia Community College and Bronx Community College, and learned that I loved teaching CUNY students. Like Dominic, and many of us at Kingsborough, I am committed to CUNY’s mission of public education. It’s a privilege to be part of that.

Q: In addition to your work as professors, you have been active in progressive organizing on campus. What reforms are you advocating for?

Dominic:  At Kingsborough there aren’t many opportunities for rank-and-file faculty to have meaningful participation in the governance of the college. The system ends up rewarding disengagement and silence. We have tried to create more of an environment where faculty and students can feel safe to participate in discussions about big social issues – and smaller campus matters – and feel like they’re not going to be punished for it.

Matthew: Those of us who organized four years ago into a group we called the Progressive Faculty Caucus (the PFC) have been attacked to such a degree that we’ve had to retrench. Many of the original participants in the PFC have been frightened out of public participation on campus altogether. A big focus of those of us still fighting has been to make campus governance structures more democratic and equitable. The resistance to change has been fierce.

Q: In 2019, when we spoke with your colleagues, Professors Emily Schnee and Libby Garland, some senior faculty members had teamed up with a conservative organization called the Lawfare Project and threatened to sue you for organizing progressive faculty members. What has happened since then?

Matthew: A small but powerful group of faculty members has gone to extreme measures to stop us from organizing and to silence dissenting voices. [This] group first threatened us with a lawsuit back in 2018 after we announced our intention to run a slate of candidates in a faculty union chapter election.

They didn’t sue us right away. First, they demanded that campus security investigate us. Then they demanded that the college bring in an outside law firm to investigate us. Both investigations found that their allegations were baseless. Then they got the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office in New York City to write a letter concluding that they were victims of religious discrimination. The EEOC took their allegations at face value, without ever even talking to us, and stated in their letter that we held meetings on Friday nights to exclude observant Jewish faculty. In reality, we did schedule one meeting on a Friday night four years ago – ours is a college that regularly holds classes and events on Friday nights – and then rescheduled it to a different night when the faculty member now suing us complained. We did not ever hold a meeting on a Friday night, not once.

Last year, several conservative faculty members finally did bring a lawsuit against us and other colleagues, using the same allegations of religious discrimination. That lawsuit is ongoing. They’ve also taken their story to right wing media, which has repeatedly published articles smearing us and labeling us as antisemitic. Two of our colleagues, and co-defendants, have had our names published and have received threatening letters and death threats as a result. In short, we continue to be personally and professionally punished for daring to organize four years ago!

Dominic: It’s an effective strategy. Our progressive faculty caucus no longer exists. We’ve been pushed out of participating in our local union chapter, and many faculty have retreated into silence because they fear retaliation and lawsuits. Instead of meeting to discuss issues like reforming college governance, we now spend a lot of our time meeting with our lawyers to defend against these baseless allegations.

Q: This sounds like an internal workplace dispute that has spun out of control. Why did a national group like the Lawfare Project get involved?

Dominic: The Lawfare Project describes itself as an organization that provides pro bono legal services to protect the civil and human rights of Jewish people worldwide. A very worthy goal, but in reality it’s an organization that uses lawsuits to bully people who criticize the Israeli government by labeling them as antisemitic.

The department chairperson who has been harassing us first allied with Lawfare to sue CUNY and the provost of our college in 2016, alleging antisemitism there too. The federal court dismissed that case in 2020, with the U.S. Court of Appeals affirming the decision in 2022. Winning these lawsuits doesn’t really seem to be the point. Intimidating political enemies – that’s evidently what it’s about.

Lawfare has a lot of resources and seems very invested in projecting wins on their issues. There’s a lot of hype. And our case is a great example. What’s the message they’re trying to convey here? That a bunch of faculty, many of whom are Jews, are antisemitic? The people who are suing us know how to create an issue out of disinformation and falsehoods and then circulate the same story over and over in a handful of media outlets until people can’t tell fact from fiction.

There are clear cases of antisemitism in this city and on this campus. For example, Kingsborough employed an avowed Neo-Nazi for several years as an adjunct professor. It raises questions about what their real political agenda is. Why aren’t they working to stop the rise of violent white supremacists in the Republican Party?

Q: The same faculty member has also brought a lawsuit against the CUNY-wide faculty union. Could you tell us more about this?

Matthew: Faculty and staff across the City University of New York are represented by a union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC.) In June 2021, the union’s delegates passed a resolution called “In Support of the Palestinian People.” This inspired the same Kingsborough faculty member suing us to lead a campaign to get faculty to resign from the union. Then, in January 2022, this faculty member and five others sued the CUNY faculty union, alleging antisemitism. In this suit, they teamed up with the National Right to Work Foundation (NRTW), a major player on the union-busting right. They are the legal advocacy group that brought the Janus lawsuit to the Supreme Court that in 2018 dealt a big blow to public sector labor unions. Some people believe this current suit against our union is a test case for a larger anti-union project that is going after the CUNY system or maybe something bigger.

Dominic: The core of a union is collective bargaining. The power of a union comes from its ability to negotiate on behalf of its members as a bloc. In this latest lawsuit, they’re saying that they should not have to be represented by a union that offends what they characterize as their religious belief in Zionism. There’s room for debate about whether the union was wise to pass this resolution on Palestine, but that doesn’t mean that the resolution is valid grounds for a lawsuit that could undermine the union. If this SLAPP succeeds, it would be a win for the chilling of political speech in universities and at the same time a blow to labor unions and higher education.

Q: What do you think makes CUNY, and Kingsborough Community College, an attractive battleground for these national organizations trying to advance their political agendas?

Matthew: Kingsborough has a long history of being used by New York power players for patronage and political ends. Historically, Kingsborough has been the whitest community college in the CUNY system in terms of both students and faculty. In the early 1960s, when the CUNY community college system was expanding, the largely African American community in Bedford-Stuyvesant wanted this new college to be located in their neighborhood in north Brooklyn. There was lots of public discussion and debate, as shown by newspaper accounts from that time. But the college ended up in south Brooklyn in a white enclave on the edge of the city where it’s difficult to access by public transportation. Kingsborough emerged from a culture of south Brooklyn machine politics, and sometimes still seems more like a political operation than an educational one.

Dominic: CUNY had free tuition from its beginning in the mid-nineteenth century until 1975. The first year it charged tuition happened to be the first year the student body became majority-minority. Accident? Doubtful. There is a big push to return to its roots as the “Harvard for the proletariat” by refunding and reinvigorating CUNY. The empowerment CUNY provides for immigrants, people of color and the working class has made it an enticing target for anti-union conservatives seeking to eliminate public competition for their privatization agenda.

In my opinion, Kingsborough functions in some ways like a Tammany Hall in modern New York City politics – a place where favors are bestowed in the service of consolidating already entrenched power. Through Kingsborough and its backwards-looking politics, conservatives have a foothold in the CUNY system. From here, they can attempt to undermine the largest public urban higher education system in the country.

Q: Where does this all leave you? How can people help you and others like you who are getting SLAPPed?

Dominic: One thing that’s challenging is that we’re in this work environment – especially after two plus years of pandemic isolation – where many people have no idea that this harassment and the lawsuits are still going on. We often feel gaslit that our own college has not come to our defense. It’s been confusing. It’s been difficult for us to continue working to improve the college and advocate for the good of our students when the blowback has been so intense.

At the same time, it’s important to keep our eyes on the larger prize and resist conservatives’ efforts to reframe the narrative. The fact is that CUNY, led for two decades by a progressive union caucus, stands on the cusp of ushering in a radical re-investment that would dramatically reinvigorate CUNY. Hence the somewhat frantic, and frankly, deeply dishonest, efforts of conservative activists to control the narrative. As painful it is for those of us caught in the front lines of this ideological conflict, in the long run I think the progressive narrative, which is more imaginative and compelling, will win.

Matthew: I am left with a sense of loss for the college and its students, and for the city we serve. Kingsborough and CUNY have the potential to be amazing places of learning, inquiry, free expression, and social transformation. The SLAPP suits distract us all from our important mission. As for how people can help us and others who are getting SLAPPed, I would say, first of all, please just know that this is happening, in CUNY and elsewhere. And support anti-SLAPP legislation, like the bill Jamie Raskin just introduced. We all have a stake in everyone being free to participate in democratic processes without fear of retaliation.

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