Yesterday, the Supreme Court vacated an appeals court ruling that the City
College of New York had violated the constitutional rights of Prof. Leonard
Jeffries, when they choose not reappoint him as head of the black studies
department, a position he had held for over two decades. It was a demotion
reportedly due to controversial comments Dr. Jeffries made concerning the
role of Jews in slavery and Mafia activities.
The Supreme Court sent the case back down for further review, in light of
new high court precedent which gives federal employers more leniency in
dismissing employees whose speech, while constitutionally protected, may
cause disruption in the workplace.
Reportedly, Jeffries, during a speech in July of 1991 to the Empire State
Black Arts and Cultural Festival, accused "rich Jews" of financing the
slave trade and conspiring with the Mafia to create Hollywood movies which
cast African-Americans in a bad light aimed at the "destruction of black
Following the speech in 1992, the college chose not to reinstate Jeffries
as head of the black studies department.
Although Jeffries was retained as a tenured a faculty member until August
of 1993, with no loss in benefits or pay, a federal district court judge
ruled that the college had violated Jeffries First Amendment rights and
ordered the college to reinstate Jeffries to head of the department.
The college later contended that Jeffries was replaced due to his deficient
administrative skills, but a jury in federal district court disagreed,
awarding Jeffries $360,000. An appeals court upheld the reinstatement
order, but set aside the monetary award pending a new trial for
The college asked the court if the First Amendment precluded a university
from removing a person from leadership who engages in "hate speech." It was
the colleges' contention that Jeffries' statements could be "detrimental to
the purpose and nature of a public university."
Jeffries attorney advanced the notion that Jeffries' remarks brought no
harm to the university, but instead brought needed, genuine discourse to
the subject matter discussed in the professor's speech.
The Supreme Court decision to neither hear oral arguments in the case, nor
let the appellate judgment stand was rather surprising considering the
amount of attention the Supreme Court had paid to this particular case over
the past couple of months.
It would seem that the setting aside of the $360,000 judgment of the jury
by the appellate was appropriate, but to vacate the original ruling of
reinstatement seemed to be a mistake and a misapplication of Supreme Court
The academic environment of a public university is much different from the
typical bureaucratic workplace, the intended environment of the case law.
The halls of academia are supposed to be a place of debate and academic
freedom. Certainly, Jeffries' comments are historically suspect, but what
harm did they really bring to the university? If they are unfounded, let
them be challenged in the same forum in which they were made. If his
comments were the only reason for his dismissal, as found by the district
court, Jeffries seems to have been slighted.
If the college were free to demote Jeffries for his statements, than any
controversial statement made in class or outside class could lead to
consequences of public university faculty members. Although the Supreme
Court's decision does not imply a stance on the issue, if the original
decision is reversed - it could cause a chilling effect in the classroom by
emasculating public university professors.
How far reaching is free speech on college campuses?
Published: Wed Nov 16, 1994 | Modified: Sat Aug 06, 2005 12:47 p.m.