Libel Threat Throws CUNY Prof’s Press Freedom into Jeopardy

By on September 17, 2007

It is with trepidation that CUNY Professor Emeritus Sharad Karkhanis today published the academic year’s second installment of his independent faculty newsletter, The Patriot Returns. Karkhanis taught for years at CUNY’s Kingsborough Community College and has published The Patriot Returns since 1992. The newsletter is independent of the university and regularly lambastes CUNY’s liberal-leaning University Faculty Senate and Professional Staff Congress, the faculty union at CUNY.
 
CUNY professor and former chair of the Faculty Senate Susan O’Malley was the subject of a few issues of The Patriot Returns last spring. In the March 12 issue of The Patriot Returns, Karkhanis wrote an article called “MOHAMMED ON HER MIND!,” with the subheading, “O’MALLEY’S OBSESSION WITH FINDING JOBS FOR TERRORISTS.” Karkhanis refers in that issue to O’Malley’s attempt, at a Faculty Senate meeting, to find a job at CUNY for Mohammed Yousry, who was convicted of conspiring in the plot to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993. Citing Faculty Senate meeting minutes, Karkhanis wrote that O’Malley “was not going to rest until she got this convicted terrorist a job.” Karkhanis was not the only one to criticize O’Malley—FIRE Adviser and Phi Beta Cons contributor Candace de Russy blogged about O’Malley’s advocacy for hiring Yousry and about Karkhanis’ coverage on March 26.
 
On April 18, Karkhanis received a letter from O’Malley’s attorney stating that the March 12 issue “contains several false, damaging, and defamatory statements regarding Professor O’Malley.” The letter claims that statements like, “Given the opportunity she will bring in all her indicted, convicted and freed-on-bail terrorist friends,” and “She does not worry about the ‘ordinary’ adjunct ~ but she is worried about convicted terrorists!” constitute “false, damaging, and defamatory statements.” The letter from O’Malley’s lawyer continues, “In addition, prior publications of the ‘The Patriot Returns’ contain similar defamatory statements, including allegations that Professor O’Malley ‘is running a training camp for Al-Queda,’ and that she is a ‘devious, dangerous and untrustworthy person.’” Karkhanis assures FIRE that he never insinuated that O’Malley was involved with “Al-Queda,” but rather used the word “Queda”—Arabic for “camp”—in reference to the many supporters of O’Malley at CUNY. Nonetheless, the letter from O’Malley’s lawyer concludes:
The statements are made with actual malice, that is knowledge that the statements were false or with reckless disregard of whether they are true. They are intended to inflict harm through their falsehood. The statements were made to injure Professor O’Malley’s reputation and to lower the opinion of her in the CUNY community. You are hereby requested to retract the above defamatory statements immediately and to refrain from making any other defamatory statements. Please be advised that pursuant to New York law, a verdict in a defamation case may include recovery of general damages, special damages and punitive damages. Unless you issue a full retraction of these defaming statements and send it to the email-list to which the March 12 “The Patriot Returned” was sent, and cease making any further statements of a defamatory nature, we will seek all legal remedies against you, including punitive damages.
The threat of a libel suit is a crafty way to stop Dr. Karkhanis from printing any more of his opinions about O’Malley or the Faculty Senate at CUNY. As Stanley Kurtz has written for National Review Online, libel claims are making a troubling resurgence these days. Most notably, earlier this summer England’s Cambridge University Press settled a libel suit brought by Saudi businessman Sheikh Khalid Bin Mahfouz against the book Alms for Jihad, an investigation into funding for Islamic terrorism. Cambridge University Press capitulated to the libel suit, agreeing to pay substantial damages to the complainant and to pulp the 1500 existing copies of the book.
 
Luckily, here in the States, a similar attempt to suppress a book printed by Yale University Press was unsuccessful. As Chris pointed out last month, “the group KinderUSA filed a libel suit against Yale University Press and Matthew Levitt, the author of Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad, over two passages in the book in which Levitt links charities in the US to terrorist groups. Inside Higher Ed reported that after Yale took a strong legal stance, the suit was dropped ‘without any changes being made in the book or any payments to the plantiffs.’”
 
While Sheikh Mahfouz’s libel claim succeeded thanks to the leniency of British libel law, a turn towards interpreting libel law in a similar manner threatens those who express contentious opinions here in the United States. Despite the threat, O’Malley’s lawyer has not filed suit, and Karkhanis intrepidly refuses to be intimidated into retracting his statements or discontinuing publishing his popular and controversial newsletter.
 
FIRE will follow this situation closely and keep readers updated on events as they unfold.