CUNY Professor Sued For Libel

November 2, 2007

As we reported in September, Susan O’Malley, a professor at the City University of New York (CUNY), Kingsboro Community College, had threatened to bring a libel lawsuit against CUNY Emeritus Professor Sharad Karkhanis. The suit has now been filed to the tune of two million dollars. Karkhanis has been an outspoken critic of O’Malley. He claimed in The Patriot Returns, his online newsletter for members of the CUNY community, that O’Malley was trying to “bring in all her indicted, convicted, and freed-on-bail terrorist friends” to the university. This accusation followed O’Malley’s defense of Susan Rosenberg, a convicted terrorist and former member of the radical Weather Underground, and Mohammed Yousry, a CUNY adjunct professor convicted in the Lynne Stewart case. Karkhanis reported that she even suggested that her institution should hire Yousry.
O’Malley has held various leadership positions within the CUNY government, including head of the faculty senate. For all intents and purposes, therefore, she is a public figure. Criticism of public figures has a long history of enjoying First Amendment protection. As CUNY Professor KC Johnson explains at the History News Network,

Karkhanis’ rhetoric, obviously, can be over-the-top. That said, at all points in the last decade, O’Malley has been a public official, repeatedly running for union and University-wide offices on slates that Karkhanis (and lots of other CUNY profs) have opposed. Mockery in election campaigns has long been recognized as protected under the First Amendment.

A spokesman for the Professional Staff Congress, CUNY’s faculty union, claimed in an Inside Higher Ed article that the organization is a “strong defender of free speech,” but suggested that accusing someone of terrorist ties in a post-9/11 world may meet the legal standards for libel. This is a dubious argument if I’ve ever heard one, as KC Johnson notes,

If describing the case exactly as the plaintiff has in her filing while hinting that in “a post-9/11 world” some forms of political satire might enjoy less protection than before the terrorist attacks represents the CUNY faculty union’s position as a “strong defender of free speech,” I’d hate to see the PSC’s approach when it doesn’t defend free speech.

Candace De Russy has covered this ridiculous case at Phi Beta Cons here, and Brooklyn College Professor Mitchell Langbert has some interesting insights at his blog, here and here.
In certain cases, like this one, FIRE draws on our Legal Network to help people find appropriate legal representation, and we are pleased that we have been able to help Professor Karkhanis thus far.