‘Game of Thrones’ T-Shirt Case Might Have Violated Prof’s Rights, Bergen Community College Says

October 30, 2014

By Stefanie Dazio at NorthJersey.com

Bergen Community College may have violated a professor’s constitutional rights in January when it sanctioned him for posting a photo online of his daughter wearing a “Game of Thrones” T-shirt that read, “I will take what is mine with fire & blood,” the college said in a letter to him.

The Sept. 29 letter to Francis Schmidt, an art and 3-D animation professor, was posted online Tuesday by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The foundation helped Schmidt secure a lawyer.

Schmidt posted the picture of his daughter on Jan. 12 on Google+, sharing it with his social media contacts, one of whom was a dean at the college. He said he was called before college officials the next day, who questioned him to determine if the photo represented a threat against the dean.

The quote comes from a character named Daenerys Targaryen (played by Emilia Clarke) who said that line during the second season of the show, which is based on the writing of Bayonne-born fantasy writer George R.R. Martin.

The Human Resources and security officials who interviewed him appeared to be unfamiliar with the show, Schmidt said. He was suspended without pay for eight days and had to visit a psychiatrist before being cleared to return to campus, he said. After the suspension, he was reinstated with back pay along with conditions such as no wearing of clothing with questionable statements and no disparaging statements about the college.

But the tenured professor believes the suspension was retaliation for a grievance he filed after being denied a sabbatical about two months prior to the posting. That complaint remains outstanding, FIRE said.

The college’s letter said any reference to the incident has been taken out of the professor’s record.

“By sanctioning you as it did, BCC may have unintentionally erred and potentially violated your constitutional rights, including under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” wrote Patti Bonomolo, the college’s director of human resources. “Lest there be any doubt, BCC recognizes and respects that you are free to exercise your constitutional rights, including your right to freedom of speech and expression, even to the extent that you may disparage BCC and/or its officials.”

The college issued a statement on Thursday.

“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,” college spokesman Larry Hlavenka Jr. said in an email. “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.”

Schmidt has not responded to requests for comment, but he told FIRE he’s “glad 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,” he said.

Schools: Bergen Community College Cases: Bergen Community College: Professor Sanctioned for Photo of Daughter in ‘Game of Thrones’ Shirt