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After FIRE lawsuit, Essex County College finally turns over documents about firing of Black Lives Matter advocate

Essex County College — after six months of stonewalling that ended only after FIRE filed a lawsuit against the college — has finally produced records concerning its termination of an adjunct professor who debated a Black Lives Matter event on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program. Those records contradict the claim by Essex’s president, Anthony Munroe, that the college was forced to investigate professor Lisa Durden after being “immediately inundated” with “feedback from students, faculty and prospective students” who expressed “fear” about Durden.  

A college ‘immediately inundated’ with messages of anger and fear?

On June 6, 2017, Lisa Durden appeared in a segment on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program, debating Carlson about whether it was appropriate for a Black Lives Matter group in New York City to hold an event that excluded white people. Two days later, Essex County College, where Durden was an adjunct professor, suspended Durden.

In a subsequent statement, Essex County College president Anthony Munroe said that after Durden’s appearance, the “College was immediately inundated with feedback from students, faculty and prospective students and their families expressing frustration, concern and even fear” about “the views expressed by a College employee.” Munroe argued that “[w]hen the administration receives an outpouring of concern regarding [the] student body, it is [the college’s] responsibility to investigate those concerns,” and that the college had a “right to select employees who represent the institution appropriately.” Munroe thought his statement was important enough to read it himself and post it to YouTube:

Munroe’s statement was curious. He acknowledged that Durden “was in no way claiming to represent the views and beliefs of the College.” Durden’s relationship with Essex was never mentioned during her Fox News segment or in the story about the appearance. If there was a digital mob wielding pitchforks and torches, it wasn’t trudging towards Essex County College, which wasn’t mentioned on Twitter in the first few days after the appearance.

Sunlight hits a stone wall

So who was complaining? FIRE wanted to cast some sunlight on whether Essex’s leadership was being truthful. On July 13, we issued a request under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act asking Essex to produce copies of any emails (or similar records) referencing Durden received in the first few days following her appearance, as well as any records reflecting the “feedback” Munroe referenced.

Essex stonewalled. While New Jersey law requires a response within seven business days, the college ignored the request until it received a letter from FIRE’s litigation team, then asked — five times — for a series of extensions, citing “the volume of records” it needed to review. Essex finally claimed that they “anticipated” being able to provide a response by November 20. That was the last we heard from Essex, which missed its own deadline and stopped responding to us.

So we sued.

After we filed our lawsuit, Essex finally produced the “volume of records” that took nearly six months to prepare: a total of 194 pages of emails (mostly between administrators), one voicemail message, and 123 pages of lists of adjunct faculty with no apparent relevance to our request.

Was Essex County College ‘immediately inundated’ with ‘feedback’? No.

Essex County College’s internal records do not support its leadership’s claims that it was “immediately inundated” with “feedback from students, faculty and prospective students and their families expressing frustration, concern and even fear” about Durden’s views. To the contrary, the records indicate that administrators had already decided to take action before any member of the public contacted them. And, for the first 13 days after Durden’s appearance, only one person contacted the college to complain.

On June 7, the morning after Durden’s appearance on Fox News, Essex’s Vice President and Chief Academic Officer, Jeffrey Lee, emailed Essex’s in-house lawyers, sparking a chain of emails among the college’s leadership and human resources staff, which was instructed to “research all information on the status of” Durden. It’s not clear how Lee learned of Durden’s appearance.

The first record of any member of the public contacting Essex County College is on June 8 — two days after Durden’s appearance. At 8:20 a.m., an individual with no apparent relationship to the college emailed Essex president Anthony Munroe, demanding Durden’s termination. Nine minutes later, Essex’s lawyer responded to him:

Thank you for expressing your concerns. This matter was brought to the Administration’s attention yesterday, and the College responded in a manner that comports with applicable law.

Nine minutes after that, Lee informed Munroe that Durden “is a Humanities Adjunct” who “was scheduled” to teach in the coming fall semester. Note the past tense. (In fact, Essex had assigned Durden to teach courses in the fall semester the day of her appearance on Fox News, suggesting that the college was satisfied with her performance.) By 10:07 a.m., Lee’s emails were referencing Durden’s “removal” from the course she was currently teaching.

For the next 12 days, the only records of “feedback” about Durden are two emails from professors: one defending her and another joking about the controversy: “only at Essex!” In other words, for the first two weeks after Durden’s appearance, the college was “inundated” by three emails — if you count the one in support of Durden.

That’s because few people appear to have associated Durden’s appearance with Essex County College at all. If anyone at Essex — other than administrators — was aware of the appearance, there’s no record of objections, much less an avalanche of students expressing “fear.”

That changed only on the morning of June 20, when broke the news that Essex had suspended Durden over the appearance. By then, Durden’s termination was a fait accompli; she’d been suspended for nearly two weeks and tried to raise the issue with the college’s trustees.

In the days that followed the story, Essex administrators received 29 emails, two Facebook messages, and an unknown number of phone calls resulting in a single voicemail:

Even if this could be characterized as being “inundated” with feedback, it certainly wasn’t from “students, faculty and prospective students,” as Munroe claimed. While a few emails, and an unknown number of phone calls, claimed some relationship with the college (or, in one case, the possibility that “my beautiful Irish daughter” might one day attend the school), most were from out-of-state residents, unlikely to ever enroll at a college in Newark, New Jersey. (One, from North Carolina, thanked administrators for “standing up for all, not just liberals or blacks”; another, who “grew up in the 60’s,” expressed alarm that Durden “is a Black Lives supporter which there in itself is alarming that she is in a classroom.”) Administrators receiving the emails even joked about emails from far away; in response to an email saying “Thank you Sir for standing up for our children,” Lee added: “Bradford County, FL checking in.”

Essex’s leadership, however, sought to justify its suspension and termination of Durden by invoking the spectre of complaints from fearful students and their families, and the impact on the college. But Essex’s own records show that the “impact” was entirely self-inflicted by the college’s own leadership.

So why, on June 23, did Essex president Munroe claim to have been inundated with complaints? Maybe administrators disagreed with Durden, and blaming a faceless crowd makes it easier to shield naked censorship. Perhaps it’s because Essex has been roiled by controversy and risks the loss of its accreditation. (Essex should take note: That same accreditor requires institutions to “demonstrate[] … a commitment to academic freedom, intellectual freedom, [and] freedom of expression.”)

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether Essex received one complaint or a thousand. College professors should be able to engage in rough-and-tumble debates on television. That necessarily means that people might complain, and some on campus might feel uncomfortable. And the First Amendment, as we pointed out when Durden was terminated, prohibits a public university from terminating faculty who speak out on matters of public concern. While it wouldn’t protect a professor who engaged in discrimination against students — and there is no allegation of that here — it does protect faculty who express views that others find offensive.

When administrators claim that their actions are necessary to quell an outpouring of concern (or, in some cases, threats of violence), it demonstrates their institutions’ unwillingness to absorb the cost of employing professors who speak publicly about matters of public concern. When this unprincipled justification is offered, it should be criticized; when it is advanced without transparency, it should be doubted.

We asked Essex County College — twice — whether it still stands by Anthony Munroe’s assertions. Essex, inundated by our two emails, has not responded.

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