In Paramus, New Jersey, Professor Francis Schmidt has faced a bizarre suspension after he posted a photo of his daughter wearing a tee-shirt with a quote from the HBO “Game of Thrones” series that read “I will take what is mine with fire and blood.” Bergen Community College in New Jersey suspended Schmidt as a possible threat to the Dean. While such theories would fit a storyline out of the Game of Thrones, it sits rather badly for an academic setting respecting the freedom of speech. The school has
College spokesman Larry Hlavenka Jr. says that a “compromise” was reached and the letter rescinded. However, Schmidt not surprisingly is unsatisfied with the absence of any apology
Schmidt shared the photo with about 55 social media contacts, including a dean at the college. He was called before college officials the next day who questioned him about the photo and what it meant. Even after this meeting with human resources and security officials, he was suspended without pay and ordered to visit a psychiatrist before being cleared to return to campus. It is not merely a moronic decision by multiple Bergen officials, it was clearly a denial of fundamental free speech principles.
I have previously written about the increasing monitoring and discipline of teachers for conduct in their private lives. We have seen teachers face discipline over social media pictures holding a weapon. Even a picture of a teacher holding a glass of a drink is enough to trigger discipline. Students have faced the same crackdown on social media and extracurricular statements.
I happen to agree that the resolution is unsatisfactory. Patti Bonomolo, the college’s director of human resources, issued a statement that “By sanctioning you as it did, BCC may have unintentionally erred and potentially violated your constitutional rights, including under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” The problem is with the words “may have unintentionally.” It clearly violated his free speech rights and the decision was not just abusive but idiotic. There is no indication that any of these multiple officials will be reprimanded, let alone seriously disciplined, for this act.
The statement also says that the compromise was agreed to because the college wanted to avoid “protracted discourse” and legal fees.
Notably, Schmidt’s objections to the resolution came after the college said that the statement was written in conjunction and agreement with his attorney. It is not clear if that reflects a conflict or a change with his own representation on the issue.
The conduct of school officials in this case is reminiscent of the continual controversies over “zero tolerance” policies in elementary, middle, and high schools. School officials continue to mete out draconian punishment to avoid any exercise of judgment (or expose themselves to any accountability) in enforcing rules. The students are then victimized but the teachers and officials remain protected. As we have noted in many other stories, there is virtually never any discipline taken against school officials in such cases. Here, however, we are dealing with a college and a professor. The school took it upon itself to punish an academic for an image from social media — an image that itself seems overtly harmless. Yet, the most that the school can do is say that it was rescinding the letter and “may” have impeded free speech rights. That is clearly not enough for an educational institution committed to free thought and free speech.
The ultimate responsibility for the failure to take more substantive action must fall on College President Kaye Walter. If the college had some real evidence of a violent threat by this academic, it should act on it. That does not appear to be the case, which means that multiple school officials acted in conjunction to deny free speech to a professor and did so without any cognizable basis. Walter was brought in to the school after it was rocked by a scandal related to its previous president who was fired for expense account abuses. This is a far more significant scandal because it undermines the school’s very foundation as an academic institution as well as its reputation among colleges.