PHOENIX, Ariz., June 25, 2007—After a months-long campaign led by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD) has reached a settlement with Professor Walter Kehowski, allowing him to return to teaching classes in the fall. In March, Kehowski was placed on forced administrative leave and faced possible termination because he e-mailed George Washington’s Thanksgiving address to the MCCCD community last November. Kehowski found the address on Pat Buchanan’s website and linked to the site, where Buchanan also discussed his views on immigration and other topics, in the e-mail. Some MCCCD employees were offended, and Kehowski was charged with violating district policies.
“This settlement is a crucial victory for freedom of expression and fundamental fairness,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “FIRE is pleased that MCCCD’s unjust treatment of Kehowski has finally ceased and that he will now be able to resume his life and his teaching.”
The trouble started for Kehowski, a tenured professor of mathematics at Glendale Community College (a college in the MCCCD system) soon after he e-mailed George Washington’s “Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of 1789” to the district’s “announcements” listserv on the day before Thanksgiving, 2006. Within weeks, five MCCCD employees filed harassment charges against Kehowski, claiming his message was “hostile” and “derogatory” because it contained a link to Buchanan’s website, where Buchanan had also posted his criticisms of immigration policies.
This was not the first time that Kehowski was penalized for expressing his constitutionally protected opinions. In 2004, MCCCD employees filed a federal lawsuit against MCCCD alleging that three e-mails sent by Kehowski—which violated no existing MCCCD policies—constituted unlawful “hostile environment” harassment for which the district should be held responsible. Then, in 2005, MCCCD placed Kehowski on administrative leave because an employee was offended by an e-mail from Kehowski about multiculturalism.
MCCCD responded to the complaints about Kehowski’s Thanksgiving e-mail by finding him guilty of violating its Equal Employment Opportunity policy and policies prohibiting unsolicited, non–work-related e-mails. Despite the fact that other MCCCD employees frequently use the “announcements” listserv to send unsolicited, opinionated, non–work-related e-mails, MCCCD Chancellor Rufus Glasper placed Kehowski on administrative leave on March 9 and recommended his dismissal.
FIRE wrote to Chancellor Glasper on April 25 to protest the actions against Kehowski, stating that 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.” Sending a link to a website, which readers can either visit or simply ignore, does not fit this exacting standard. FIRE further wrote that MCCCD applied a double standard to Kehowski because numerous other employees frequently send similarly unsolicited announcements over the same listserv.
When Chancellor Glasper failed to address these concerns, FIRE issued a press release to publicize MCCCD’s actions against Kehowski, eliciting outrage over Kehowski’s treatment from journalists, academics, and concerned citizens across the country.
On Friday, June 22, MCCCD and Kehowski reached a settlement that will allow Kehowski to return to teaching classes this fall. MCCCD has withdrawn the charges that Kehowski violated its policies, though it will henceforth restrict his use of the district e-mail system. A confidentiality agreement prohibits either side from discussing the details of the settlement, but Kehowski affirms that he is satisfied with the outcome.
“Dropping the charges against Kehowski was the only acceptable resolution to the district’s excessive and unfair actions,” Lukianoff said. “Hopefully, this settlement will remind other universities that abusing harassment policies to bully students and professors who engage in unpopular expression will not stand.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process rights, freedom of expression, and rights of conscience on our campuses. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Glendale Community College and elsewhere can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.
Greg Lukianoff, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
Rufus Glasper, Chancellor, Maricopa County Community College District: 480-731-8100; firstname.lastname@example.org
Velvie Green, President, Glendale Community College: 623-845-3012; email@example.com