By James Kleinmann at NJ.com
PARAMUS — Bergen Community College says it “may have” violated a professor’s civil rights when it placed him on unpaid leave in January for posting a “threatening” photo of his daughter… wearing a Game of Thrones T-shirt that displayed the show’s tag line, “I will take what is mine with fire and blood.”
In a letter addressed to art and animation professor Francis Schmidt on Sept. 29, BCC Human Resources Director Patti Bonomolo acknowledged the college’s error, which drew a firestorm of criticism when news of his sanction surfaced in April.
“By sanctioning you as it did, BCC may have unintentionally erred and potentially violated your civil rights, including under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” Bonomolo wrote, according to a letter obtained by Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a free speech educational advocacy group representing Schmidt.
Bonomolo continued: “Upon further reflection on this matter and in order to bring this issue to closure, BCC will strike and remove from your employment file any adverse record in connection with this Incident.”
The controversy began when Schmidt shared a photo with his Google+ contacts, a photo that depicted his 7-year-old daughter in a yoga pose, wearing an oversized Game of Thrones T-shirt that read, “I will take what is mine with fire and blood.”
Jim Miller, the executive director for human resources at the college, saw the picture the following day and asked Schmidt to meet with him and two other administrators over the “threatening email.”
At one point, the college’s security director, William Corcoran, told Schmidt that “fire” could “be a kind of proxy for AK-47 fire.” Schmidt was suspended for eight days and ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation before returning to campus. (Corcoran was later promoted.)
Schmidt believes he was targeted because he filed a grievance against the college after being passed up for a sabbatical two months prior to the incident.
The college had little to say publicly about the apparent mea culpa it offered in the Sept. 29 letter.
“Rather than participating in protracted discourse resulting in an extended period of legal fees, a compromise definitively closes this matter treating it as if it never occurred,” spokesman Larry Hlavenka Jr. said in a statement. “As the College has maintained throughout this process, in deference to the privacy of all employees and the confidentiality associated with their civil rights, while the College will assert its positions through the appropriate channels and venues, it will not do so through public dialogue. The College will continue to protect employee and student privacy by declining to release details contained in their records.”
FIRE was more candid in its statement.
“Saying that Bergen Community College’s punishment of Francis Schmidt ‘may have lacked basis’ is like saying that King Joffrey may have been a less than ideal ruler,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said in a statement. “Nevertheless, we’re glad to see BCC finally acknowledge Professor Schmidt’s First Amendment rights and rescind his punishment. FIRE will continue to work with students and faculty to make sure administrators understand that they must respect the First Amendment—or risk answering for their absurd overreactions in court.”
Schmidt couldn’t immediately be reached for comment, but told FIRE that he was “very happy to have my First Amendment rights back.
“I’m glad to have this thing behind me and would like to get back to teaching animation. I’m happy to know groups like FIRE are out there, protecting my valuable First Amendment rights as an academic. Without them our higher education system would be all the weaker.”