This article appeared in The Huffington Post.
Last April, I wrote about the absurd treatment of Professor Francis Schmidt by Bergen Community College (BCC) officials who seem better suited for Westeros than New Jersey.
Schmidt, an art and animation professor, posted a picture of his young daughter wearing a T-shirt with the Game of Thrones quote, “I will take what is mine with fire & blood” to Google+, which automatically sent an email of the picture to his Google+ contacts, including a BCC dean.
The dean found this picture of a child doing yoga so terror-inducing that she reported him to other BCC administrators. (I have a hunch she wouldn’t do well watching a typical episode of Game of Thrones.) Exhibiting the same lack of common sense, BCC officials claimed that Schmidt posed a danger to the school community. Why? Believe it or not, the administrators argued that the “fire” mentioned on the T-shirt “could be a kind of proxy for ‘AK-47s.‘“ Schmidt was then placed on leave without pay until he agreed to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.
My organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), contacted Schmidt after the incident and got him top shelf legal representation. Now, months later, Schmidt’s free speech ordeal at BCC is finally over.
Here’s our update, posted this morning:
After learning of BCC’s outrageous actions, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) connected Professor Francis Schmidt with FIRE Legal Network member Derek Shaffer, a partner at the law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, and Gabriel Soledad, an associate at the firm.
In a recent letter to Schmidt, BCC Director of Human Resources Patti Bonomolo acknowledged that the college “may have lacked basis” for punishing him and that doing so “potentially violated” his constitutional rights. “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,” wrote Bonomolo.
While I’m glad to see BCC finally acknowledge Professor Schmidt’s First Amendment rights and rescind his punishment, saying that Bergen Community College’s punishment of Schmidt ‘may have lacked basis’ is like saying that King Joffrey may have been a less than ideal ruler.
Meanwhile, Professor Schmidt reports: “I’m 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.”
While his free speech troubles may be finished, his fight with BCC’s administration isn’t over yet:
Under pressure from Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, BCC expunged the reprimand from Schmidt’s record in late September, stating that “any penalty or restriction” Schmidt suffered is now “rescinded and acknowledged to be null and void.” The letter confirms that Schmidt “will be in good standing with BCC as if the Incident never occurred, and BCC’s records shall so reflect.”
Schmidt has filed a grievance against BCC for denying him a sabbatical and other unfair employment practices. That complaint remains outstanding and is proceeding.
I wish I could say cases like Schmidt’s surprised me anymore, but I have gotten weirdly used to them. For more examples of this kind of nonsense, check out the highlight reel of wackadoo free speech and First Amendment cases I have dealt with over the last decade or so, prepared in celebration of FIRE’s 15th anniversary this year: