Posting Photo of Your Young Daughter Wearing Game of Thrones T-Shirt — Not A Threat Of Violence

October 29, 2014

By Eugene Volokh at The Washington Post

From the college’s letter to Prof. Francis Schmidt:

This letter acknowledges that Bergen Community College (“BCC”) may have lacked basis to sanction you for your January 12, 2014 Google+ post of your daughter wearing a Game of Thrones t-shirt (the “Incident”). 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.

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, including without limitation Mr. James Miller’s January 16, 2014 email and Ms. Patti Bonomolo’s January 24, 2014 email. Likewise, any penalty or restriction you may have suffered in connection with this Incident, including as set forth in Ms. Bonomolo’s January 24, 2014 email, is hereby rescinded and acknowledged to be null and void. Part and parcel of this acknowledgement, the Incident shall not be considered in any future BCC decisions concerning your employment, including without limitation any decisions relating to promotion, sabbatical, compensation, or any future disciplinary proceeding. In sum, you will be in good standing with BCC as if the Incident never occurred, and BCC’s records shall so reflect.

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. Going forward, we ask simply that you abide by the rules, policies, and procedures that are generally applicable — to the extent consistent with constitutional and other legal commands — to all other members of BCC’s faculty.

Here’s the initial report from Colleen Flaherty (Inside Higher Ed) on the incident in April of this year;

Francis Schmidt, a professor of art and animation, … posted [on Google+] a picture of his young daughter doing yoga in a T-shirt with the new “Game of Thrones” season tagline in January, upon release of the trailer….

But one contact — a dean — who was notified automatically via Google that the picture had been posted apparently took it as a threat. In an e-mail, Jim Miller, the college’s executive director for human resources, told Schmidt to meet with him and two other administrators immediately in light of the “threatening e-mail.” …

Schmidt said he met with the administrators, including a security official, in one of their offices and was questioned repeatedly about the picture’s meaning and the popularity of “Game of Thrones.”

Schmidt said Miller asked him to use Google to verify the phrase, which he did, showing approximately 4 million hits. The professor said he asked why the photo had set off such a reaction, and that the security official said that “fire” could be a kind of proxy for “AK-47s.”

Despite Schmidt’s explanation, he was notified via e-mail later in the week that he was being placed on leave without pay, effective immediately, and that he would have to be cleared by a psychiatrist before he returned to campus. Schmidt said he was diagnosed with depression in 2007 but was easily cleared for this review, although even the brief time away from campus set back his students, especially those on independent study.

Schmidt believes he was targeted in part because he filed a grievance against the college a week before the post for being passed up for a sabbatical….

[Bergen Community College President Kay] Walter said she did not believe that the college had acted unfairly, especially considering that there were three school shootings nationwide in January, prior to Schmidt’s post.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has more; see also thethreat by Firefly poster case from University of Wisconsin-Stout in 2011. Thanks to Robert Dittmer for the pointer.

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