All posts by David Seidemann

David Seidemann is a professor in the Geology Department at Brooklyn College.

How ‘Soft Censorship’ Works at College

These days, administrators at public universities must be very jealous of their counterparts at private institutions. As non-governmental actors, private college administrators can suppress any speech they don’t like – or, probably more to the point, that displeases their dissent-intolerant student constituents.

There is no better illustration of the extremes to which a university will go to suppress speech than the recent actions by DePaul University, a private institution. Two student groups had invited noted conservative Ben Shapiro to speak at an event they were sponsoring, “Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces and Attacks on Free Speech.” The university, however, banned him from attending the event either as a speaker or as a member of the audience. Administrators claimed that the sponsoring groups had not properly registered Mr. Shapiro as a speaker and that the university was concerned with security issues.

Related: Feminist Censored from Censorship Panel

Public universities have the same incentives to ban speakers like Mr. Shapiro, but they have less leeway than their private counterparts. For example, the president of California State University, Los Angeles, giving in to student protestors, cancelled a scheduled speech by Mr. Shapiro just days before it was to take place. But Mr. Shapiro vowed to show up anyway. And appropriately using the First Amendment as a weapon, he threatened the university with a lawsuit.

Those tactics yielded the desired result: the president backed down and allowed the speech to go forward as planned.

Although public universities cannot suppress speech using heavy-handed tactics, they can use more subtle measures to chip away at free speech, as illustrated by my experience at Brooklyn College, a public institution where I teach.

In April 2015, I sponsored a talk at the college entitled “Free Speech and Social Criticism,” by prominent blogger Pamela Geller. A few hours after I publicized Ms. Geller’s upcoming event, the national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) emailed the college president, the provost, and other campus officials asking if it was true that Brooklyn College was hosting “the nation’s leading Islamophobe.”

Related: A New Age of College Censorship

Apparently prompted by that email, the provost phoned my department chair at his home early (7:30 AM) the next day to discuss the event. There was no legitimate basis for that call. First, my department (earth science) had nothing to do with the event.  Second, the provost’s office has no administrative responsibilities over campus events of that sort. Further, had the provost been genuinely interested in information about the event, he should have called me, its sole sponsor.

Because there was no legitimate reason for it, I have to assume that the call was intended

to send a message. Emails from an influential lobbying group had apparently alarmed and displeased the administration. Calling my boss was a means of conveying that displeasure to me in the hope of getting me to modify my plans. Simply put, the provost became the conduit by which political pressure from CAIR to back off the event was transferred to me.

Related: Harmless College Jokes Punished at Civility Seminar

In a similar example of soft censorship, a college vice president telephoned the speaker I had lined up to open the Geller event. (That speaker teaches at Kingsborough Community College, which, like Brooklyn College, is a branch of the City University of New York.) He asked if she would care to discuss her role in the event. That call to a speaker at my event was also wholly unjustified: First Amendment case law forbids administrators at publicly funded universities from involving themselves in the content of events sponsored by their faculty or students, who are free to choose themes and presenters as they see fit.

At a minimum, these telephone calls from upper-echelon administrators were chilling to free speech and open communication on campus.  Would faculty be eager to participate in provocative or politically incorrect events if their participation generated investigative calls from provosts and vice presidents? That kind of pressure can easily chill speech. Some faculty – especially untenured ones – would avoid sponsoring or participating in controversial talks in order to avoid the ire of – and possible retribution from – their administrative superiors. Even I will think twice before doing so again.

I get it: college administrators hate controversy and use small acts of suppression – soft censorship – to help them avoid it. But speech suppression, even when subtle, is still antithetical to a core mission of a university – fostering unfettered debate. An open discussion of the largely hidden practice of soft censorship may help preserve that core mission.

I Could Have Been Fired Without Ever Knowing Why—But I Had Tenure

I learned about the charges brought against me only after the findings were reached. My departmental chair called me into her office and at the direction of the college administration told me what I had to do to remedy the apparently awful situation I had known nothing about. I had to change my syllabus.

I teach geology at Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY). And luckily I have tenure, an important protection in case of Kafka-like trials at a PC college. What had I done wrong? See for yourself. Here is the offending phrase from the grading portion of my syllabus: “Class deportment, effort etc……. 10% (applied only to select students when appropriate).”

Can you spot the alleged offense? I bet not. For reasons that escape me too, that phrase was perceived as a prelude to sexual harassment. And the phrase was so clearly problematic to the administration that they directed me to change it.

Related: How Students Intimidate Professors and Stymie Learning

As it turns out, my syllabus almost crossed another invisible line of acceptability in the politically correct world at Brooklyn College. Here’s the problematic part:

“This classroom is an ‘unsafe space’ for those uncomfortable with viewpoints with which they may disagree: all constitutionally protected speech is welcome.” I had been using warning triangles sardonically instead of ordinary quote marks when referring to foolish PC terms. All my department chair would say is, “The triangles are the problem.” I never found out what made the triangles a problem. They were ready to act on a problem without saying what the problem was.

My guess is that some administrator thought the warning triangles were reminiscent of the pink triangles that the Nazis made gays wear. I wonder how long the administrators deliberated before deciding that the clip art street signs I’d included in my syllabus weren’t Nazi symbols.

Nothing in Writing

I think it’s fair to conclude that the phrases at issue in my syllabus were neither sexually harassing nor anti-gay. Would anyone not deeply versed in PC culture conjure up the alleged offenses in my syllabus?  Indeed, of all the excesses of the language police I’ve heard about, I can’t think of a more tortured interpretation of words.

Charges involving sexual harassment and anti-gay bias are serious matters that mandate thorough investigation. But because the charges are so serious, they also mandate due process for the accused. That this investigation was concluded, and a course of action recommended without my knowledge and without my having an opportunity for input, fails to meet that standard.

I thought it wise, given the possible damage to my reputation, that I learn what procedures had been used in my case and what records exist. So I started digging, first asking my chair to tell me which department had initially contacted her.

As a result of that inquiry, the college’s Director of Diversity Investigations and Title IX Enforcement —yes, Brooklyn College really has a Director of Diversity Investigations— emailed me and offered to meet. Given the seriousness of the charges, I declined that offer because I wanted all my communications with the administration to be documented.

In a series of emails, I asked the director to provide me with a copy of the complaint with names redacted, the names of the offices involved in the matter, a description of the procedures, and a description of all actions that were recommended as a result of the findings, among other things.

In response, the director claimed that there had been no charges filed against me and that his office had not investigated my syllabus. He again offered to meet in order to “clear up some apparent misconceptions and miscommunications.”

I certainly was confused at this point. If no charge had been filed, why was I directed to change my syllabus? If his office hadn’t investigated the issue, why did he contact me? If his office wasn’t involved, which office was?

To clear things up, I asked my chair for further explanation. What she told me made me realize why the director was so reluctant to put anything in writing or to share pertinent documents: despite his denial, it was the director’s office that had told her to have me change the phrasing in my syllabus.

Confronting the Director

When I confronted the director with my newly discovered information, he immediately shut down communications, saying, “My office considers the matter to be closed.”

I know that my case pales in comparison to others because the charges I faced were bizarre enough to be easily rebutted. But in seeking answers from the college administration over this issue, I revealed the college’s system for investigating charges of sex bias and sexual harassment to be thoroughly dysfunctional.

If the procedures used against me are typical, an accused person at Brooklyn College is 1) denied due process during the investigation and adjudication and 2) denied any documentation of the complaint, procedures, and findings after the fact.

It is also particularly troubling that the administrator in charge of the investigation of my syllabus became the gatekeeper regarding inquiries about the investigation. Who, then, would hold that administrator accountable for improprieties in investigations?

Brooklyn College is now on notice: the college’s system for investigating charges of sex bias and sexual harassment fails to meet requisite standards for due process, transparency, and accountability and needs to be fixed.

Notes on Teachers’ Union ‘Free Riding’

Although I am not a member of the faculty union at the City University of New York (CUNY) where I teach, I am required to pay its annual fee. The courts allow this arrangement called an “agency shop,” so that non-members like me don’t become free riders – getting benefits from union representation in contract negotiations, but not paying for that service.

In fact, my ride has been pretty expensive: I had to fight in court to prove that my union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), was abusing the First Amendment rights of nonmembers who objected to the union’s political and ideological expenditures.

My success in that litigation did restore some rights to objecting fee-payers. But I think my case also revealed a lesson of more general importance: unions in agency shops are not being held sufficiently accountable for their use of fee-payers’ money – and First Amendment rights suffer.

First Amendment Rights

The courts long ago recognized the need to protect the free-speech rights of agency fee-payers and, accordingly, they put restrictions on unions in agency shops. Those unions must share financial information with fee-payers and give them a chance to object to and receive rebates for that part of their fee that’s used for political or ideological purposes. To do otherwise would be to compel objecting fee-payers to support speech they disagree with, a violation of the First Amendment.

While fee-payers have the right to object to the union’s ideological expenditures, exercising that right has never been easy at CUNY. The procedures of our teachers’ union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) are filled with obstacles designed to discourage fee payers for doing so. Indeed, the court in my case ruled that two of the PSC’s procedural hurdles violated the speech rights of fee-payers. The union was ordered to stop requiring fee-payers 1) to file annual objections and 2) to specify which expenditures are in dispute as a condition for access to arbitration.

The remaining procedures, while deemed legally acceptable, still impose burdens on would-be objectors. For example, to be recognized as objectors, fee-payers must send a registered letter to the union president during a one-month objection period, and they are required to go to arbitration to resolve disputes over the money owed. Contrast the difficulty of those rebate procedures with how easily the fee is extracted from non-members: CUNY simply deducts agency fees (and union dues) from employee paychecks.

The Fox Guards the Henhouse

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that a fee payer has successfully jumped over those hurdles to become an objector who is owed a rebate. That objector now faces perhaps the most important problem with the agency shop model: the union decides for itself what charges are political or ideological and reports its breakdown to fee-payers each year. And if you doubt that this arrangement is open to abuse, here’s a stark example of my case against the PSC.

Before my court case, the PSC’s reports to fee-payers designated as non-political (and therefore not-rebatable) all of its expenses related to its “Contract Campaign,” an expense placed under the category “Office Supplies, Printing, and Publishing.”

It took some digging for me to discover that the “Contract Campaign” consists almost exclusively of public rallies, picket lines, concerts, and letter-writing campaigns. Mischaracterizing these blatantly political activities as “Office Supplies” is on its face an attempt to hide their true nature from fee-payers. Absent my litigation, that subterfuge would have remained hidden. A system that allows such deceptions to go undetected absent litigation is broken. Clearly, unions need to be subject to the independent oversight of their use of fee-payer money.

Who Are the Real Free Riders?

As deceitful as the PSC’s “Office Supplies” trick was, the most significant abuse lies elsewhere. Of the roughly $14.5 million that the PSC raises from CUNY workers annually, it transfers $6.6 million to public-school teachers unions –  $3.4 million to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and a net of $3.2 million to the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT). The AFT has no involvement with labor issues at CUNY. NYSUT’s involvement with CUNY labor issues is minor, in fact, trivial: it admitted in my court case that its only contribution to the PSC’s contract negotiations was “a few phone calls.”

Clearly, CUNY faculty receive no benefits from the millions transferred to the AFT and virtually none from the millions more transferred to NYSUT. Indeed, those transfers appear to defy court requirements that transfers of dues from a local union to an affiliate must ultimately inure to the benefit of the members of the local.

So, the evidence is plain: the most egregious free riders at CUNY are two public school teachers’ unions, the AFT and NYSUT. They collect millions in dues and fees from CUNY faculty and do nothing in return.

Are there any First Amendment lawyers out there willing to take on the AFT and NYSUT? I am tired of being overcharged for my ride on the union gravy train.