Wednesday, January 2, 2008

O'Malley v. Karkhanis: In Pursuit of the Acadmic Alfred E. Neuman

Professor Susan O’Malley’s attorney, Joseph Martin Carasso of New York City, filed her formal defamation complaint against Emeritus Professor Sharad Karkhanis 11 days ago. The complaint is well-written and Attorney Carasso deserves credit for clear, no-holds-barred writing. I have recorded the entire complaint in my blog.

There are several issues in O’Malley v. Karkhanis, John Doe and Jane Doe that deserve public scrutiny. One involves the scope of academic freedom. A second involves freedom of speech in a collective bargaining unit and the interaction of labor law with defamation and First Amendment rights. A third involves the extent to which the courts and public dispute resolution processes interact with collegial academic processes. After mentioning these points, I review the blogger and media coverage of the O’Malley case. Then, I mention a couple of the key points in Professor O’Malley's complaint and offer some comments.

The O’Malley case is consistent with the long-observed deterioration of universities’ willingness to tolerate dissent. It may suggest an extension of this deterioration to universities’ use of the courts to suppress external criticism. Much as Singapore’s dictator Lee Kuan Yew and Saudi billionaire Sheikh Khalid Bin Mahfouz have used litigation to silence Chee Soon Juan and Rachel Ehrenfeld, so universities may have begun to use tax-exempt and publicly financed assets to bring politically motivated law suits.

Another potential implication of the O’Malley case is that Professor O'Malley implicitly argues that academic freedom is more limited than the freedom of speech associated with public political discourse. In other words, academic freedom may be more rather than less constrained than public freedom with respect to discourse concerning public figures. Whether O’Malley is a public figure is debatable. The courts may choose to fashion a different standard of speech for academic discourse than for public discourse.

A third point is that there are potential labor issues. In union certification elections the National Labor Relations Board has attempted to establish the concept that there must be laboratory conditions whereby employers and unions cannot threaten or cajole bargaining unit members to vote for or against a union. The PSC is a creature of New York’s Taylor Law, not the National Labor Relations Act. The question in this case is whether an elected union officer, who shares interests in common with the union president (Barbara Bowen) and other officers, should have the right to suppress dissident speech and opinion through the transactions costs associated with law suits. The pro-union New York courts may well consider that this is acceptable.

A fourth point pertains to collegiality. Several officers of the faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), to include President Bowen and Professor O’Malley, have previously publicly attacked another member of the faculty, Professor KC Johnson, in part claiming that he lacked collegiality. Now, Professor O’Malley sues Professor Karkhanis, sidestepping collegial processes and turning her dispute with him into a matter of public record. Can law suits be viewed as part of academic governance processes? If so, can the public continue to support the expense of collegial processes given that academics cause additional dispute resolution costs also at the public's expense?

Media and Blogger coverage of O’Malley v. Karkhanis, John Doe and Jane Doe

On October 31, Annie Karni of the New York Sun noted that Professor O’Malley said of her case that "it's all very, very silly". Karni also quotes Professor Karkhanis as saying that the law suit is “an attempt to infringe on his freedom of speech” and that all of his comments were meant as “satire”. The two statements are parallel. Professor O’Malley characterizes her case as “silly” because Professor Karkhanis’s statements about her were satirical.

As well, the Sun quotes Professor Karkhanis:

"She's a public figure, and I have a right to say that, based on the evidence I have and the pattern I've seen of this woman…Why would someone try to assist the terrorist people when you have good Americans who are looking for the job?"

The Sun notes that Professor Karkhanis criticized Professor O’Malley for defending the right of Susan Rosenberg to teach. Rosenberg had spent 16 years in prison for explosives possession. As well, Professor Karkhanis criticized Professor O’Malley’s statement in a University Faculty Senate (UFS) meeting that Mohammed Yousry, convicted of terrorist-related activity, ought to be given a job.

In the New York Post, Dareh Gregorian notes that much of Professor O’Malley’s complaint revolves around Professor Karkhanis’s statements concerning her “obsession with finding jobs for terrorists" and her support for Lynne Stewart, Mohammed Yousry and Susan Rosenberg. Gregorian also notes that Professor Karkhanis believes that what he wrote was satire and that his statements were “appropriate."

Candace de Russy notes that Professor Karkhanis made several accusations about Professor O'Malley after she proposed to rehire Mohamed Yousry, an Arabic-language translator convicted of supporting terrorist activities. He was fired from York College.

In FIRE’s the Torch, Luke Sheahan points out that Professor Karkhanis has been a critic of Professor O’Malley and that he had stated that she was trying to “bring in all her indicted, convicted, and freed-on-bail terrorist friends to the university”.

In Frontpagemag, Phil Orenstein notes that the PSC has a history of aiding and abetting terrorists. Phil also notes that the PSC has focused on left-wing political activity while bread and butter issues have languished and “welfare fund reserves fell by 97%”.

Phil also notes that past issues of Karkhanis’s newsletter, Patriot Returns, have attacked Professor O’Malley for supporting Professor Timothy Shortell, who claimed that all religious people are “moral retards”. Professor Karkhanis has also attacked Professor O’Malley for attempting to find Susan Rosenberg a job and her public statement that Mohammed Yousry was seeking a job at a faculty senate meeting. Phil argues that Professor Karkhanis’s newsletter is a check against abuses of power by the PSC and that the law suit is a free speech issue.

The United Federation of Teachers, Phil points out, has seen considerable internal rancor but has never seen a law suit by a union officer against a member, with the union openly taking the officer’s side. Phil also argues that O’Malley is a public figure and so is fair game for criticism.

In a recent blog in Democracy Project Phil Orenstein also notes that the Queens Village Republican Club in New York has named Professor Karkhanis “Educator of the Year” and will hand him an award for his ongoing struggle for freedom of speech and his refusal to be silenced by the PSC’s program of suppression of conservatives.

An example of the PSC's suppression of conservatives appears in History News Network. KC Johnson notes that Dorothee Benz,a PSC spokesperson argues that

Free speech has limits, as any first year law student knows. O’Malley’s case concerns one of those limits, where the right to free speech comes up against the harm caused by libelous statements. Whether accusing someone of aiding and training terrorists, in a post-9/11 world, rises to meet the legal standards.”

The PSC sees conviction for explosives possession or conviction for colluding with terrorists as protected speech, but it views criticism of its officers as falling outside the limits of free speech, even when those accusations have factual basis.

Johnson adds that although Karkhanis’s rhetoric can be “over the top”, it played a key role in last year’s union election. Karkhanis’s newsletter has called O’Malley “Queen of Released time” and has criticized O’Malley for multiple office holding and “non-accomplishment” Johnson points out that

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?"

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed notes that while “Karkhanis said that he does not believe O’Malley to be a terrorist (or a queen, which he calls her frequently)", Professor O’Malley’s attorney said that “falsely accusing or alleging someone is a terrorist or is aiding terrorists in the current year, post-9/11, is a serious charge”. Professor Karkhanis replies that “the factual basis behind the terrorism jabs — that O’Malley went to bat for these individuals — has been demonstrated by e-mail messages he posted on his Web site.”

The O’Malley Complaint

I blog the O’Malley complaint in its virtual entirety here. A few of the points are that Professor Karkhanis said that Professor Susan O’Malley comes from a wealthy background, which Professor O’Malley denies. He also said that she used “intimidation” and joining “radical groups” to become leader of the University Faculty Senate to avoid “dirtying her hands with chalk”. He said that O’Malley tried to help Susan Rosenberg, a convicted criminal. He said that O’Malley tried to pressure departmental chairs to help Yousry, who was convicted of abetting terrorism. He said that the “Queen of Released Time” (Professor O’Malley) was jockeying to have Lynn Stewart hired to the staff of the PSC union. In a second cause of action, Professor O’Malley complains that Professor Karkhanis’s newsletter used a headline:


and that Professor Karkhanis called the New Caucus, the left-wing group that dominates the Professional Staff Congress, the “Never-Any-Action Caucus”. Professor Karkhanis states that:

Her major goal is to establish a Training Camp to recruit and train, at Kingsborough, people like herself who are misguided, misdirected, misinformed. O'Malley seeks to find jobs at KCC and other CUNY colleges for Mohammed Yousry. 'O'Malley doesn't care about us--her only concern is that Yousry should teach at CUNY. O'Malley has also been job-searching for Susan Rosenberg…O'Malley, though, doesn't care about us--her only concern is that Rosenberg should teach at CUNY…We believe that the above mentioned KCC individuals [Susan Farrell, Robert Singer, Jack Arnow, Robert Putz, Patrick Lloyd] were selected for the O'Malley-Queda Recruitment Camp because she thinks that (1) they all are naive and gullible and (2) she can infiltrate the Department and College-wide P&Bs at KCC and at other CUNY colleges to push her PERSONAL AGENDA of finding jobs for Yousry, Rosenberg and other terrorists...Meanwhile remember: the Queen of Released Time is a devious, dangerous and More to come on the Queen."

There are eight additional causes of action, for a total of ten. Each of them refers to this sort of silly diatribe about Professor O’Malley. The entire complaint is here and it is evident that all of these statements were satirical. I would have referred any CUNY faculty member who said to me that they really thought that Professor O’Malley wore a crown and held a scepter as “Queen of Released Time” or actually ran an al-Queda Recruitment Camp to the university's counseling center.


There are potential dangers to freedom of speech emanating from Professor O’Malley’s decision to bring this case, so although it seems likely that she will lose, it is important to take it seriously. Arguably, the case is frivolous. However courts are not always predictable.

It is evident that Patriot Returns is and always was considered to CUNY’s own Mad Magazine. It is funny, and although I disagree with the “New Caucus” union leadership, I and likely no one else ever concluded that the Patriot's satirical claims were true. On a few occasions, based on statements in the newsletter, I contacted the union leadership such as Steve London and Barbara Bowen for further details, and they did not choose to reply.

College professors don’t always have common sense, but they are not complete idiots. An audience of college professors is able to discern satire from fact. Also, the PSC has far more resources than Professor Karkhanis, while Professor O'Malley has the same, and both the PSC and Professor O'Malley could have responded openly through ordinary internal communication processes to any accusations. I do not recall receiving any communications from Professor O'Malley, although I have met her several times.

Along these lines, Professor O’Malley openly stated to the Sun's Annie Karni (kudos, Annie) that this is a “silly” case. As well, Karkhanis presents evidence in the form of minutes of the senate meeting that Professor O’Malley in fact made the comments he alleges. There is little debate about the underlying fact that Professor O’Malley has repeatedly and openly supported left wing kooks. The questions that the complaint raise focus on satirical hyperbole. In political discourse, should free speech be infringed? The New Caucus and the Professional Staff Congress think so. I disagree with them.

Arguably, by virtue of her becoming an ex-officio member of the Board of Trustees of CUNY, Chair of the University Faculty Senate, Executive Director of the Radical Caucus of the Modern Language Association, contributor and Editor of Radical Teacher and member of the CUNY union's Executive Committee, Professor O'Malley became a public figure. I am not sure of the definition of “public figure”. I have contacted a respected labor and fiduciary duty attorney I have known for many years and posed him the question whether a union officer and/or faculty senate officer who runs for office is considered a public figure in the same sense that a public politician is. I suspect that this is an open question, and that Professor O’Malley’s case might do serious damage to the cause of free speech if it is not viewed as frivolous.

As well, there is a serious question whether the kind of freedom of speech that applies to public discourse applies to private universities. As a public university CUNY is subject to the same First Amendment rules as apply to public discourse, in which case officials ought to be treated the same as they are ordinarily, although this is not certain. As a union officer and head of the faculty senate Professor O’Malley might be construed as a public official, but are these roles really public? I would hope that the answer is yes, but if Professor O’Malley has intended to institute additional avenues for suppression in American universities, she has been creative in selecting this avenue.

My opinion about the “John and Jane Doe’ defendants is that Professor O’Malley is reaching. In my conversations with Professor Karkhanis he never once mentioned a coauthor. In fact, the very use of the “John and Jane Doe” are a kind of legal slur. Perhaps Professor O’Malley is thinking that other satirist, Alfred E. Neuman, is John Doe.

In summary, Professor O’Malley probably has no case. If she does, it is one more stake in the heart of academic freedom and of universities. Clearly, she attempts to use the legal system to intimidate Professor Karkhanis. She does not want Professor Karkhanis to continue his writing of the Patriot to benefit of the PSC’s radical leadership.

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