Jeffries v. Harleston, No. 92 Civ. 4180 (KC).

CourtUnited States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. Southern District of New York
Writing for the CourtKathy-Ann Whipple, Clement J. Colucci, Asst. Atty. Gens., New York City, for defendants
Citation828 F. Supp. 1066
PartiesLeonard JEFFRIES, Plaintiff, v. Bernard HARLESTON, individually and in his official capacity as President of City College of New York, W. Ann Reynolds, individually and in her official capacity as Chancellor of City University of New York, James P. Murphy, Edith B. Everett, Herman Badillo, Sylvia Bloom, Gladys Carrion, Louis C. Cenci, Michael J. Del Guidice, Stanley Fink, William R. Howard, Harold M. Jacobs, Susan Moore Mouner, Calvin O. Pressley, and Thomas Tam, individually and in their official capacities as Trustees of City University of New York, Defendants.
Decision Date04 August 1993
Docket NumberNo. 92 Civ. 4180 (KC).

828 F. Supp. 1066

Leonard JEFFRIES, Plaintiff,
v.
Bernard HARLESTON, individually and in his official capacity as President of City College of New York, W. Ann Reynolds, individually and in her official capacity as Chancellor of City University of New York, James P. Murphy, Edith B. Everett, Herman Badillo, Sylvia Bloom, Gladys Carrion, Louis C. Cenci, Michael J. Del Guidice, Stanley Fink,

[828 F. Supp. 1067]

William R. Howard, Harold M. Jacobs, Susan Moore Mouner, Calvin O. Pressley, and Thomas Tam, individually and in their official capacities as Trustees of City University of New York, Defendants

No. 92 Civ. 4180 (KC).

United States District Court, S.D. New York.

August 4, 1993.


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Joseph Fleming, New York City, for plaintiff

Kathy-Ann Whipple, Clement J. Colucci, Asst. Atty. Gens., New York City, for defendants.

OPINION AND ORDER

CONBOY, District Judge:

A federal jury has found that City University, without justification, punished a tenured professor on its faculty for an off-campus speech he had given, by removing him as Chairman of his academic department. It is unequivocally clear, under our Constitution, and the law enunciated on the subject by the United States Supreme Court, and in the light of the factual trial record developed in this case, that the action taken by the University was constitutionally impermissible. This is and must be the case, in spite of the hateful, poisonous and reprehensible statements made by the professor in the speech in question. This need not have been the case if the University had offered convincing, firsthand proof at trial that either the consequences of the speech disrupted the campus, classes, administration, fund-raising or faculty relations, or that the professor had turned his classroom into a forum for bizarre, shallow, racist and incompetent pseudo-thinking and pseudo-teaching. While a few shards of hearsay or self-serving evidence were offered halfheartedly by the University to suggest potentially viable defenses along these lines, the University cannot escape the astonishing picture it painted for the jury: high public and academic officials swearing under oath that they had removed the professor for tardiness in arriving at class and sending in his grades, and for asserted brutish behavior

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which had been either ignored or condoned by the University

We are, accordingly, required to uphold the jury verdict on the professor's first amendment claim, and the related punitive damage award made by the jury in justifiable disgust with the conduct of the University officials who did not act, then acted for the wrong reason, then were dishonest about their motivations in testimony before the jury.

We are asked by the defendants not to reinstate the professor in the Chairmanship even if we uphold his First Amendment claim and the punitive damages associated with it. We are told that the professor has lost nothing and hence is not irreparably harmed in his dismissal, that the award of punitive damages is an adequate measure of his injury, and that the balance of equities lies in the University's favor. If the Chairmanship meant nothing, why did the University go to such lengths in the trial to justify its denial as a proper and just sanction for a cavalcade of the professor's non-speech sins? If it meant nothing, why was it bestowed upon, and indeed accepted by one of the most eminent Black Studies scholars in America, Edmund Gordon? The punitive damages were not, of course, a measure of the professor's injury but a measure of the bad faith of the defendants. In any case, to forego reinstatement in light of the punitive damage award, ironically to be paid in this case not out of the pockets of the defendants but out of the public treasury, would put a price tag on constitutional violations and we must not, and will not, denigrate the First Amendment by doing so. Accordingly, the Court will reinstate Professor Jeffries as Chairman of the Black Studies Department for a period of two years.

As for the balance of equities, the short answer is that had the University adequately established that the professor, whose teaching has after all been tolerated for twenty years, conducts his classes or his Chairmanship in a racist, anti-semitic or incompetent manner, we would not order him to be reinstated. The confused and incompetent defense record regrettably leaves us no choice but to order the reinstatement of plaintiff.

We will, however, word the permanent injunction to make it unmistakably clear that the University is in no way restricted from monitoring the Professor's classes and his on-campus stewardship of the Chairmanship, and that he may be removed from either if a good cause basis for finding abusive or indecent behavior is adequately established. We observe, with reluctance but out of necessity, that if the University decides to pursue such a course, it ought to concern itself with such matters as witnesses, stenographic records, affidavits and the like, and not rely on pious press releases and hearsay-ridden, elliptical, hand-wringing memoranda from academic deans.

With respect to the professor's second claim, based upon an asserted property interest under the Fourteenth Amendment, we agree with the defendants that the record is insufficient and, accordingly, set aside the jury's verdict. We will proportionally reduce the damage award.

Finally, we conclude that the defense of qualified immunity is not available to the defendants, in that they violated clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known, and in that it was not objectively reasonable for the defendants to believe that their acts did not violate authority from the United States Supreme Court, and the Courts of this Circuit.

The reasons and legal basis for all of the above findings follow.

Background

The relevant history of the case begins on June 5, 1991, with the unanimous reelection of Professor Jeffries as Chairman of the Black Studies Department by the faculty of the Department. See Trial Transcript ("Trial Tr.") 55, 185.1 On July 1, 1991, President Harleston sent a letter of congratulations to

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Professor Jeffries accepting plaintiff's election without reservation. See Letter from President Harleston to Professor Jeffries, dated July 1, 1991 ("I look forward to working with you and your department.... I am confident that with your assistance and guidance and with the help of your Executive Committee, we will continue to serve the students and citizens of the City College as an educational institution of the highest quality.")

Three weeks later, on July 20, 1991, Professor Jeffries made a speech at the Empire State Black Arts and Cultural Festival. See Plaintiff's Exhibit 3 (providing text of speech). The broad subject of the speech was the reform of the educational system to reflect diverse, and particularly minority, perspectives. It was given in response to wide criticism leveled against Professor Jeffries by some of those he attacked in his speech. Furthermore, he was speaking as an appointed consultant of the State Education Commissioner. In the speech, Professor Jeffries made strident attacks against particular individuals, and made derogatory comments about specific ethnic groups. See id.

The speech caused an outcry of protest and was condemned both within and without the University. On August 8, 1991, President Harleston wrote a letter to his City College colleagues attacking Professor Jeffries' speech as containing "clear statements of bigotry and anti-semitism." See Plaintiff's Exhibit 5, Letter from President Harleston to City College Colleagues, dated August 8, 1991.2 In the letter, President Harleston hinted at the possibility of action being taken against Professor Jeffries in response to the speech:

Certainly, we must insure the right of our faculty and students to express their ideas, both in and outside the classroom, without fear of institutional censorship. However, the right to free expression and, indeed, to academic freedom is not and cannot be absolute. With freedom must come accountability.
I therefore, would like to reassure you that at the beginning of the Fall semester, I will initiate a thorough review of this situation. This review will be conducted in consultation with faculty and staff, and will follow a procedure that respects the principles of academic freedom and assures due process.

Id.

A memorandum from Vice Chancellor Ira Bloom to Chancellor W. Ann Reynolds, on the same day as the Harleston letter, suggested possible actions that might be taken against Professor Jeffries, including the removal of the plaintiff from his position as Chairman of the Black Studies Department. See Plaintiff's Exhibit 6, Memorandum from Vice Chancellor Ira Bloom to Chancellor W. Ann Reynolds, dated August 8, 1991, at 1 ("The following procedures would be applicable if consideration were to be given to removal as department chair or to disciplinary action...."). The possible actions were further discussed in a letter from Provost Robert Pfeffer to President Harleston on August 14, 1991, which also refers to the possibility of removing the plaintiff from his position as Chairman of the Black Studies Department. See Plaintiff's Exhibit 7, Letter from Provost Pfeffer to President Harleston, dated August 14, 1991 ("Professor de Jongh has already viewed the video-tape and does not think Jeffries' remarks were so outrageous as to be sufficient cause for his removal as department chair. It is agreed by and among whom is not clear that the most severe censure of Professor Jeffries should be limited to removing him as the Chair of the Black Studies Department.").

828 F. Supp. 1074

On September 12, 1991, President Harleston wrote to...

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1 practice notes
  • Jeffries v. Harleston, No. 953
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
    • 18 Abril 1994
    ...opinion, Judge Conboy denied the defendants' motion and ordered Jeffries reinstated as department chairman. See Jeffries v. Harleston, 828 F.Supp. 1066 (S.D.N.Y.1993). He noted that there was substantial evidence that Jeffries' speech motivated the defendants to act, and that defendants had......
1 cases
  • Jeffries v. Harleston, No. 953
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
    • 18 Abril 1994
    ...opinion, Judge Conboy denied the defendants' motion and ordered Jeffries reinstated as department chairman. See Jeffries v. Harleston, 828 F.Supp. 1066 (S.D.N.Y.1993). He noted that there was substantial evidence that Jeffries' speech motivated the defendants to act, and that defendants had......

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