FIRE Legal Network Focus: Attorney Arthur I. Willner

August 26, 2014

Yesterday on The Torch, I introduced readers to Matthew G. Kaiser and Justin Dillon, lawyers from The Kaiser Law Firm PLLC who are members of FIRE’s Legal Network and are working hard to defend due process rights for college and university students. Today, FIRE would like to thank another standout Legal Network attorney, Arthur I. Willner.

Art is a principal and founding partner at Gladstone Michel Weisberg Willner & Sloane, ALC, a law firm in Los Angeles, California handling a wide range of legal concerns. Earlier this year, Art secured a strong settlement on behalf of a paramedics instructor at Antelope Valley College (Calif.), taking the case and filing a First Amendment lawsuit following a FIRE Legal Network referral.

FIRE interviewed Art about his work and his thoughts on student and faculty rights. Here’s what he had to say:

What kind of work do you do?

ArthurWillnerI am a founding partner of a small full service firm in Los Angeles. We serve clients throughout the United States in matters involving aviation, bankruptcy, business, entertainment, insurance coverage, employment and professional liability. My practice has consisted of 30-plus years of civil litigation representing mostly corporate clients in trials and appeals in state and federal courts in cases ranging from defending airlines following catastrophic accidents to commercial disputes to defamation and product liability matters and class actions. About six or seven years ago, I incorporated the protection of university faculty and student free speech and due process rights through FIRE’s Legal Network.

How did you learn about FIRE?

It’s funny, I actually can recall exactly when I first learned about FIRE. Although like most people, I had heard for years about political correctness in general and particularly the anecdotes coming out of our college campuses, it wasn’t until 2007 when I read The Shadow University by Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate that I first realized how pervasive the problem had become. After finishing the book, I did a little online digging into Kors and Silverglate, and that’s when I began to learn about FIRE.

What interested you about FIRE’s Legal Network?

After looking into the work that FIRE was doing, I was presented with my personal “put up or shut up” moment. I could continue to go along merely bitching and moaning about the threat to academic freedom on our campuses, or I could actually try to do something about it. Here was this organization—FIRE—committed to fighting for the same principles that were hugely important to me. Essentially FIRE’s Legal Network gave me the opportunity to stand up for faculty and students who were being denied their rights to academic freedom by the very institutions that professed to stand for those rights. And so I became a Legal Network member in 2008.

What’s your most interesting Legal Network referral?

All of my FIRE work has been both interesting and professionally and personally satisfying. Probably my most interesting case was my representation of Lance Hodge—an instructor of Emergency Medical Technology at Antelope Valley College in Lancaster, California. Lance is a career paramedic who has responded to over 15,000 emergency calls. From the time he was initially hired in 1992, Lance would incorporate in his EMT class lectures real life stories about actual emergency response calls. He believes that this is critical in the training of future EMTs and is in the interest of public safety because it provides the students with the context in which they will be performing in the field, including the different cultural practices and graphic and sometimes offensive language they will inevitably encounter. Lance was disciplined by the college after some administrators decided that some of the language he incorporated into his lectures was offensive and insufficiently sensitive to diversity. They threatened future discipline in the event he presented a particular lesson plan. We sued in federal court in Los Angeles, and the judge ruled as a matter of law that Lance’s lecture involved matters of public concern and that his interest in presenting the material outweighed the college’s purported interest in silencing him. We ultimately settled the case on the eve of trial with the college paying a six-figure sum in reimbursement of Lance’s attorneys’ fees.

What surprised you in the course of working on your FIRE referral?

What has surprised me the most has been the absolute certainty on the part of many college administrators that censorship of faculty and students is the appropriate response when individuals who they view as members of a protected group claim offense. The notion that the proper response to offensive speech is more speech and more debate is a completely foreign concept to them. In taking this approach, these administrators fail both the individuals involved in the particular controversy and the student body at large. What makes it even sadder is the fact that these schools take these positions while claiming in their publications to stand up for academic freedom.

What other kinds of student and faculty cases are you interested in pursuing?

So far I’ve handled both free speech and due process cases. However, due to the belief that all forms of discrimination must be stamped out, there is a growing threat to the freedom of religious groups on campus to maintain the integrity of their fundamental belief systems. But I’m game for anything that comes along.

Why is it important to protect student and faculty rights?

I attended a public high school in Brooklyn, New York and then received my B.A. from Columbia University. This was in the late ’60s and early ’70s. To say there was a lot of screaming and conflict at the time would be an understatement. We had a regular diet of demonstrations against the Vietnam War, South African apartheid, domestic racial issues, and so on. And although it’s fair to say that most of the students and faculty were of a like mind when it came to these issues, there were still plenty of people who disagreed with us. Yet it would never have dawned on us to tell those people that their views were offensive and therefore they should just shut up, and that they could not be heard. I recall any number of times when a dissenting voice would be heard during a demonstration, and the reaction of the majority was typically, “Let him speak!” Simply silencing someone would have been unthinkable. We need to return to the days when an open an honest debate and the airing of divergent viewpoints was considered the norm—particularly on our nation’s campuses.

What kinds of cases should FIRE pursue in the future?

As important as the cases are, I believe that FIRE needs to do more than pursue individual cases. Legal rights inevitably bend to the prevailing culture, and right now the culture of “victimhood” is all pervasive. Members of certain protected groups are regarded as victims whose feelings trump the constitutional rights of everyone else. I consider myself to be a free speech fundamentalist. When some bureaucrat—such as an Assistant Dean for Diversity Affairs—says you can’t say something, I believe that’s when you need to say it over and over again and louder than before. We need to change the culture, and I think FIRE can help do that by getting its views heard in the high schools so that when those students arrive at college and are told during freshman orientation to get their views in line with the accepted groupthink, they can respond by refusing to shut up and by reminding the university functionaries that this is still a free country.