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Arizona Professor Faces Termination for E-Mailing George Washington's Thanksgiving Address

Today’s press release discusses one of the most egregious cases of viewpoint discrimination I’ve come across during my time at FIRE.

The case involves Walter Kehowski, a math professor at Glendale Community College—part of the Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD) system—who e-mailed a single Thanksgiving message to the entire MCCCD community. On the day before Thanksgiving, Kehowski sent an e-mail containing the text of George Washington’s “Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of 1789” over the district’s “announcements” listserv. Kehowski had found the Proclamation on Pat Buchanan’s blog, and included a link to that webpage in his e-mail. That citation would have dire consequences.

Within weeks, five MCCCD employees complained that Kehowski’s e-mail was “derogatory” and “hostile” because the link he’d included—if you decided to open it—led to a page where Buchanan also posted his opinions of immigration. MCCCD soon held an Initial Assessment of the complaints, and decided that since Kehowski’s e-mail was not work-related but rather expressed a “social comment,” he had violated MCCCD’s e-mail policies, which limit e-mails to work-related information. MCCCD reacted on March 9 by forcing Kehowski to cease teaching, placing him on immediate administrative leave, and recommending that he be terminated.

But Kehowski had used the same “announcements” listserv that many employees use to send general-interest e-mails. Other non-work-related e-mails sent recently include an announcement about Arizona’s 20th Annual “Sisters in Crime” mystery novel celebration, quotes about Women’s History Month, ads for how to purchase goats for orphans in Uganda, and reminders about the health benefits of bananas. While the e-mail about bananas is admittedly neutral, the other e-mails could indeed be said to constitute “social comments.” Yet FIRE is not aware of one single other MCCCD community member who has been placed on forced administrative leave or faces possible termination for sending such e-mails.

MCCCD has also found Kehowski guilty of violating the Equal Employment Opportunity policy. That policy states:

It is the policy of Maricopa to promote equal employment opportunities through a positive continuing program. This means that Maricopa will not discriminate, nor tolerate discrimination, against any applicant or employee because of race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, age, disabled, or veteran status. Additionally, it is the policy of Maricopa to provide an environment for each Maricopa job applicant and employee that is free from sexual harassment, as well as harassment and intimidation on account of an individual's race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, age, disabled, or veteran status.

For MCCCD to claim that Kehowski created an environment that was not “free from sexual harassment, as well as harassment and intimidation” is a clear abuse of standard definitions of “harassment” and “intimidation.” As FIRE stressed in a letter to MCCCD Chancellor Rufus Glasper, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that for workplace expression to be considered “harassment,” it must be “severe or pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile or abusive work environment.” Even if employees did not agree with George Washington’s proclamation about Thanksgiving or were offended to cast their eyes on a web address, which, if they clicked on it, would reveal Pat Buchanan’s opinions, it is simply untenable to claim that Kehowski’s e-mail was harassing or intimidating.

Kehowski currently awaits an appeal hearing, scheduled for June 5. At that hearing, he will defend himself before a panel of three faculty members, who will then make recommendations to the chancellor. Anyone interested in free expression and fundamental fairness in the academic environment would be wise to keep an eye on events as they unfold at Glendale. FIRE will certainly keep the pressure upon MCCCD until the district drops the charges and Kehowski returns to teaching.

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