NEW YORK (Aug. 5)
Jewish groups are decrying a federal judge’s decision to reinstate Leonard Jeffries as chairman of the black studies department at the City College here.
While calling Jeffries’ behavior “repugnant,” U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Conboy returned the chairmanship to the controversial professor on the grounds that the university’s administration violated his First Amendment rights in ousting him.
At the same time, Conboy also stated that his ruling did not give Jeffries license to spout racism or teach discredited theories.
In the decision, handed down Aug. 4, Conboy blasted officials of the City University of New York, which oversees City College, for mishandling the case and for what he called their “cowardly” and “dishonest” behavior.
He proceeded to present them with a veritable blueprint for constructing a strong case against Jeffries, who was stripped of his chairmanship after making what were considered by many to be anti-Semitic and racist remarks in a July 1991 speech.
In that speech, made at the Empire State Black Arts and Cultural Festival in Albany, N.Y., Jeffries said, “Russian Jewry had a particular control over the movies, and their financial partners, the Mafia, put together a system of destruction of black people.”
In his speech, Jeffries also accused Jews of financing, planning, operating and maintaining the slave trade.
After his remarks became public, Jeffries’ speech ignited impassioned debate around the country about academic freedom, multiculturalism and academic responsibility.
A federal jury concluded in May that the college had violated Jeffries’ rights and awarded him $400,000 in damages, which Conboy later reduced by $40,000.
It was left to Conboy to decide whether to reinstate him.
He did so reluctantly, expressing distaste for Jeffries’ “hateful, poisonous and reprehensible statements.”
But he also criticized the university’s legal strategy of disciplining Jeffries for administrative incompetence, when he found that the real issue was Jeffries’ off-campus speech.
By not confronting the real issue, the judge wrote, university officials had been “dishonest about their motivations.”
‘MORALLY A TRAVESTY’
According to Conboy, the university could have disciplined a faculty member for engaging in a “systematic pattern of racist, anti-Semitic, sexist or homophobic remarks during class.”
The school could also have charged that his behavior disrupted classes, faculty relations or fund-raising.
He suggested that the university should have pursued one of these avenues as far back as 1984, after Jeffries reportedly made anti-Semitic remarks to a Jewish job applicant.
The school could also have acted after Jeffries was accused of threatening to kill Eliot Morgan, a Harvard Crimson reporter who interviewed him.
Morgan, now working as an intern at The Wall Street Journal, called Conboy’s decision this week “morally a travesty.
“But legally I agree with it. There was little that could have been done given the way City College presented their case,” said Morgan, who is Jewish and black.
“A legitimate case has been squandered. And it’s a sad thing. Not only is he reinstated, but he’s $360,000 richer for it. It proved profitable to be a bigot in this case,” he said.
The American Jewish Congress, in a statement issued by Executive Director Henry Siegman, said that the reinstatement “makes a caricature of the principle of academic freedom.”
City College “properly has never attempted to deny Jeffries a classroom. It has sought only to distance itself from his bizarre views by not conferring on him the honor and administrative responsibility of department chair,” said Siegman.
The Anti-Defamation League, in a statement issued by Melvin Salberg, the group’s national chairman, said that “to reward Professor Jeffries’ blatant bigotry by reinstating him is appalling.”
The reinstatement “seems to reinforce the notion that racism and bigotry can be brought onto the college campus with impunity.”