Jewish groups are applauding the federal appeals court ruling this week that City College of New York acted properly when it removed Leonard Jeffries from the chairmanship if its black studies department after he made anti-Semitic remarks.
“Obviously, it’s very good news,” said Marc Stern, co-director of the legal affairs departments of the American Jewish Congress.
“It gives universities necessary leeway to deal with false scholarship and demagoguery masquerading as wisdom,” Stern said. “Hopefully the example of City College will set a model for other universities plagued with racist hucksters of one stripe or another.”
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday to reverse the earlier court decisions won by Jeffries in his fight against City College after it refused to renew his term as department chairman in 1992.
That decision followed a speech Jeffries made at the Empire State Black Arts and Cultural Festival in Albany, N.Y., in 1991. The speech was described by officials of the Anti-Defamation League as “blatantly bigoted.”
In the speech, Jeffries said jews were central to the slave trade and described a fellow professor as “the head Jew at City College.” He also described “a conspiracy” between Russian Jewry and the Mafia in Hollywood, in which the parties “put together a system of destruction of black people.”
Jeffries sued the college after he was stripped of his chairmanship. A federal district court in Manhattan ruled in his favor, saying that his right to free speech had been infringed upon. The court ordered that he be reinstated and awarded him $360,000 in damages.
Last year, the appeals court upheld the lower court ruling, but did away with the damage award.
A month later, a deeply divided U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision granting wide discretion to government agencies in punishing an employee for making inflammatory statements.
The court in Waters vs. Churchill ruled that the government agency need not show actual disruption caused by the statement, but only “reasonable predictions of disruption” to the life of the organization.
City University, of which the college is a part, then appealed to the Supreme Court, which ordered the appeals court to reconsider the Jeffries case in light of the new ruling.
University officials would not say whether they plan to remove Jeffries again, but released a statement calling the appeals court’s recent decision “a total and complete vindication of the City University of New York’s position.”
Jeffries pledged to appeal to the Supreme Court with his case and compared it with prominent civil rights cases such as Brown vs. Board of Education, which desegregated public schools.
Stern said there is no way of predicting whether the Supreme Court will agree to hear the case, though Samuel Rabinove, legal director of the American Jewish Committee, said he anticipates the high court rejecting Jeffries’ appeal.
Rabinove also welcomed the appeals court decision. “Imagine the outery if an avowed white racist were to remain as a department head at a city university,” he said. “So we of course applaud the decision.”
Rabinove also said important distinctions must be made between what is expected of a professor and a department head.
“Department heads represent the university much more visibly, so a university should have much grater latitude in terms of deciding who will head a department,” he said.
Jeffries’ tenured position at City College has not been threatened.
ADL welcomed the new ruling, calling it “a proper reading of the law.”
“This case was never about Professor Jeffries’ academic freedom. As a member of the faculty, he is still entitled to express his opinions, however noxious and abhorrent they may be,” said a statement issued by Robert Machleder, chairman of the ADL New York Regional Board, and Anita Sher, director of the New York Regional Office.
The City University administration has the right “to make it clear that it finds Jeffries’ record of racism and anti-Semitism repugnant and unrepresentative of the university’s faculty, students and alumni,” they said.