Professor on Brink of Being Fired for E-Mailing George Washington’s Thanksgiving Address

May 7, 2007

GLENDALE, Ariz., May 7, 2007—The Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD) has placed a professor on forced administrative leave and has recommended that he be terminated for e-mailing a Thanksgiving message to his colleagues last November. On the day before Thanksgiving, Professor Walter Kehowski sent out the text of George Washington’s “Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of 1789” and a link to the webpage where he’d found it—on Pat Buchanan’s web log. After several recipients complained of being offended by the e-mail, MCCCD found Kehowski guilty of violating the district’s Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) policy and technology usage standards. Kehowski then contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.

“It simply boggles the mind that a professor could find himself facing termination simply for e-mailing the Thanksgiving address of our first president,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “This situation is an embarrassment to MCCCD and would be laughable if a professor’s most basic rights and very livelihood weren’t on the line.”

On November 22, 2006, tenured mathematics professor Walter Kehowski at Glendale Community College—part of the MCCCD system—sent an e-mail containing Washington’s “Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of 1789” to all MCCCD employees using a district-wide listserv designated for “announcements.” Within weeks, five MCCCD employees filed harassment charges against Kehowski, claiming his message was “hostile” and “derogatory” because it contained a link to Buchanan’s website, where the conservative Buchanan had also posted his criticisms of immigration policies.

MCCCD’s Initial Assessment found on January 3, 2007 that Kehowski was guilty of violating MCCCD’s EEO policy and policies limiting e-mail usage to messages that “support education, research, scholarly communication, administration, and other MCCCD business.” These policies also prohibit “[m]ailings to large numbers of people that contain unwanted solicitations or information.” However, MCCCD employees commonly use the “announcements” listserv to send out unsolicited information. Recent e-mails sent over this very listserv include an advertisement for purchasing goats for orphans in Uganda, quotes about Women’s History Month, and a reminder about the health benefits of eating bananas. To FIRE’s knowledge, not one of the senders of these e-mails has been forced to cease teaching or threatened with dismissal.

On March 9, MCCCD Chancellor Rufus Glasper placed Kehowski on administrative leave and recommended to the MCCCD Governing Board that he be dismissed. Kehowski has since appealed that decision and will defend himself at a hearing before a panel of three faculty members on June 5. That panel will then make recommendations for Chancellor Glasper to present before the Governing Board.

FIRE wrote to Chancellor Glasper on April 25 to protest the actions against Kehowski, stressing that e-mailing a proclamation from George Washington or including a link to Pat Buchanan’s website does not constitute punishable harassment. FIRE reminded Glasper that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that for workplace expression to be considered “harassment,” it must be “severe or pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile or abusive work environment.” Sending a link to a website, which readers can either visit or simply ignore, does not fit this exacting standard. FIRE further wrote that even if the Thanksgiving e-mail was unsolicited, numerous other employees had sent unsolicited, non-work-related announcements over the same listserv. Chancellor Glasper responded with a letter on April 30, but failed to address any of FIRE’s concerns.

“It is dark day for free speech and common sense in Arizona. If the MCCCD believes at all in the importance of the right to free expression, or even just in basic fairness, it will undo its illiberal actions and exonerate Professor Kehowski immediately,” Lukianoff said.

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process rights, freedom of expression, and rights of conscience on our campuses. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Glendale Community College and elsewhere can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.

CONTACT:

Greg Lukianoff, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg_lukianoff@thefire.org
Rufus Glasper, Chancellor, Maricopa County Community College District: 480-731-8100; r.glasper@domail.maricopa.edu
Velvie Green, President, Glendale Community College: 623-845-3012; velvie.green@gcmail.maricopa.edu