We previously discussed the case of Greg Manco, a former St. Joseph’s University professor who was effectively terminated by the university after a controversy over his criticism of reparations demands. He has now filed a federal lawsuit alleging defamation, and other claims against the university and a variety of individuals, including five alumni and one current faculty member.
The controversy began over three tweets from Manco’s anonymous Twitter account, “South Jersey Giants.” Manco compared slavery reparations to the great-great-grandchild of a murder victim asking the perpetrator’s great-great-grandchild for compensation. He also observed that racial training “divides us and *worsens* race relations.” Finally, when a woman said that black people and Native Americans “have been hurt horribly” in the United States, Manco responded “yet here you still are.”
Manco received a written notice from the school’s human resources department that he was responsible for tweets “biased or discriminatory,” and he has since been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation.
It is easy to see why many would be offended by how he expressed his views, including the statement “Now get this racist reparation bulls**t out of your head for good.” However, other academics espousing anti-police or anti-Republican views have used similar language without triggering a campaign for termination.
After he was cleared in the investigation, the university refused to renew his contract. At the time, I wrote how the message seemed abundantly clear: even if a professor survives an attack on free speech or academic freedom, they may still be terminated.
The 67-page suit alleges a coordinated and determined effort to build a case against him due to his unpopular viewpoints. The defendants include St. Joseph’s University, Hadassah Colbert, Kieran Loue, Lynly Carman, Erin Fahey, Dr. Susan Liebell, and Karleigh Lopez.
The complaint focuses on the role of Colbert, a former student:
40. Colbert was a student of Dr. Manco, in the Spring of 2017, receiving a final grade of F.
41. Colbert never complained about any type of bias or discrimination by Dr. Manco while a student of his, or at any time during her enrollment at St. Joseph’s. Additionally, no students ever accused Dr. Manco of bias or discrimination in their end-of-semester student evaluations.
42. On January 22, 2021, Colbert submitted an email to Nicole Stokes, Ph.D., St. Joseph’s Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Shaily Menon, Ph.D., the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Dr. Tapp, accusing Dr. Manco of being racist and transphobic.
43. Colbert included selected screenshots of tweets of Dr. Manco as supposed evidence to support her claims, adding that Dr. Manco discriminated against her in class and fostered a hostile learning environment four (4) years earlier, in Spring of 2017. Colbert stated that Dr. Manco should not be allowed to coach or teach students.
Manco alleges that Colbert met with Title IX Coordinator Lexi Morrison, who “broke with procedure and conspired with Colbert by advising her to find others to support her experience with Dr. Manco, and to get them to reach out to her.” He further alleges that “Colbert followed Ms. Morrison’s advice by using her Instagram account to spread ‘selected’ screenshots of selected tweets of Dr. Manco with her added defamatory comments, while encouraging others to report him to the University so that he would lose his job.”
That effort brought the involvement of students like Karleigh Lopez, who never took a class with Dr. Manco and a campaign to “flood” the school with complaints.
The lawsuit states that, on February 19, 2021, a few hours after Lopez’s public tweet to St. Joseph’s, and after the school received three anonymous bias reports, Dr. Kristopher Tapp, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of Mathematics, asked Dr. Manco to join a Zoom meeting. Dr. Tapp, Dr. Shaily Menon (the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences), and Zenobia Hargust (St. Joseph’s Chief Human Resources Officer) attended the meeting and Manco was informed that he was being placed on administrative leave immediately.
Ultimately, Dr. Manco was cleared of the allegations. St. Joseph’s outside investigator wrote a ten page summary, finding that Dr. Manco’s tweets were not in violation of St. Joseph’s policy and that “there [was] no evidence” of racial bias in his classroom towards Colbert nor towards any other students.
The complaint, however, states that “Inexplicably St. Joseph’s decided to tell the public a different story, releasing a statement that stated, ‘[i]n this case, a definitive determination could not be made due to insufficient evidence.'” The school then proceeded to limit Manco’s role at the university and eventually refused to renew his contract.
Here are the counts:
COUNT I Violation of Section 1981 (Against St. Joseph’s)
COUNT II Breach of Contract (Against St. Joseph’s)
COUNT III Negligence (Against St. Joseph’s)
COUNT IV Defamation (Against All Defendants)
COUNT V False Light (Against All Defendants)
COUNT VI Civil Conspiracy (Against All Defendants)
COUNT VII Tortious Interference with Contract (Against All Individual Defendants (except Dr. Liebell)
This will be no easy challenge. The claim under Counts I, II, VI, and VII are particularly difficult to maintain. The University will argue that it has a process to follow when presented by such claims. He was cleared in that process but the university will still argue that it remained concerned over aspects of Dr. Manco’s conduct. Moreover, it will claim that this is not a tenured position and it has the right to make a decision on the contract renewal based on the totality of the circumstances facing the department. I am not giving credence to such arguments but courts are often reluctant to delve into decisions on hiring or retention of academics. The university will argue that such decisions can be based on a myriad of different considerations.
In a statement to The College Fix, spokesperson Gail Benner stated that this was nothing more than a decision based on an evaluation of need. Moreover, she insisted “a non-renewal does not affect an individual’s eligibility for future employment opportunities with the University.” That latter statement seems overtly disingenuous. After suspending Manco for possible bias and discrimination, the university is now terminating him. He will be viewed as damaged goods or a prohibitively high risk by any other school.
The stronger claims may be Counts IV and V where he has alleged factually untrue statements or false depictions by these students and the university. Some of these statements may be treated as opinion but others make concrete factual claims about his past conduct. It may be enough to get through the expected motion to dismiss.
Discovery could lay bare the internal process of the university and whether these officials decided that it did not matter if Dr. Manco was cleared by the investigation.
Here is the complaint: