High court tackles campus free speech

November 15, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, acting in the celebrated case of a black professor who made a scathing speech against Jews, raised the possibility yesterday that public colleges and universities will have more authority to curb "hate speech" by faculty members.

In a brief order issued after studying the case for seven weeks, the court wiped out a legal victory that the professor had won in lower courts and ordered a new review of City College of New York's move to punish him.

The justices cited one of their own rulings, issued in May in a case involving the punishment of a hospital nurse for griping about job conditions. The ruling appeared to favor added power for government supervisors to discipline employees for remarks that the supervisors believed disrupted the workplace.

Lawyers for New York state relied heavily on the May ruling in urging the justices to hear the new case. Rather than granting review of the CCNY appeal or turning the appeal aside, as the professor's lawyer had urged, the justices erased the lower-court decision and directed a new review.

The case involves Dr. Leonard Jeffries Jr., a professor at CCNY and the chairman of its black studies department, who was a pioneer in that field. Just after being recommended in 1991 for a seventh three-year term as department chairman, he made a speech at a black arts and cultural festival. The speech, which caused an uproar at CCNY and throughout the state, included claims that blacks had been given a negative image in the film industry because of a conspiracy led by Jews in Hollywood "and their financial partners, the Mafia."

An exponent of "multicultural education," Dr. Jeffries lambasted the critics of that educational philosophy, saying that Jews had made "an orchestrated attack" on his theories. He openly criticized some of his faculty colleagues, referring to the college ombudsman, Bernard Sohmer, as "the head Jew at City College."

When his reappointment as department chairman came up, he was named for only one year, instead of the usual three; several members of the university's board said they had acted against him only because of the contents of the speech.

He sued, and won reinstatement as department chairman, plus $400,000 in damages. Later, the damages sum was reduced to $360,000.

A federal appeals court ordered the damages issue to be reconsidered by the trial judge. But it did rule that Dr. Jeffries' constitutional right of free speech had been violated, because he had been talking about public issues and because there was no firm conclusion that his remarks disrupted university life.

CCNY officials took the case on to the Supreme Court, saying there was "a tumult" in the nation's academic community over the power of public colleges to punish those who engage in "hate speech." It urged the justices to clarify the authority of university administrators to act when a faculty member's public remarks threaten to impair the institution's effectiveness.

The issue becomes a constitutional one when a public college or university is involved, because faculty members and other employees of such institutions are protected by the free-speech clause of the First Amendment. That protection does not apply to a private institution's employees.

The justices have been pondering the CCNY case since their first session this fall, and apparently dug deeply into it before deciding to order a new review by lower courts. The court did not reveal how the justices voted on the CCNY case. The votes of at least five justices were needed to send the case back to the lower court.

In other action yesterday, the court agreed to decide whether the U.S. government may be sued for damages when a U.S. drug agent injures someone in an incident in a foreign country, and it asked the Justice Department for legal advice on whether state political parties that pick their nominees by party convention must obey the federal voting rights act.

That issue arises in a case growing out of Virginia Republicans' nomination of Oliver L. North for a U.S. Senate seat. Mr. North's campaign committee is no longer involved in the case.

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