Muzzling a Watchdog?

Member of CUNY faculty union's board sues emeritus professor for $2 million over Web site that tracks -- and criticizes -- the union. Both sides say academic freedom is at stake.
November 2, 2007

No one could accuse Sharad Karkhanis of pulling his punches. The emeritus professor at Kingsborough Community College publishes The Patriot Returns, an online newsletter that critiques the leadership of the faculty union at the City University of New York. The overall thrust of the newsletter is that the Professional Staff Congress, which is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, is poorly run, focused too much on leftist politics to be effective on behalf of its members.

By carefully monitoring meeting minutes, newsletters, blogs and the like, Karkhanis acts as a self-appointed watchdog of the union. And he can bark. He mixes his analysis with choice nicknames. Barbara Bowen, the president of the union, is dubbed "Dear Leader," after the North Korean dictator.

One of Karkhanis's other favorite targets has been Susan O'Malley, a professor of English at Kingsborough and a member of the union's executive board. The newsletter has dubbed her "The Queen of Released Time" for her ability to win time off from teaching for her union or Faculty Senate duties. O'Malley is now fighting back -- she's sued Karkhanis for $2 million, charging him with libel and defamation. To O'Malley, the issue is one of her damaged reputation. Given that faculty unions normally pride themselves on defending the right of dissenting professors -- especially those who poke fun or criticize those in power -- some professors see the lawsuit as an attack on academic freedom.

The full lawsuit hasn't been filed yet, but preliminary exchanges have focused on comments Karkhanis made about O'Malley and her push to protect the job rights of Mohammad Yousry, who was fired from CUNY and who was convicted (in a controversial case that some believe was unfair) of supporting terrorist activities and of Susan Rosenberg, a CUNY instructor who served jail time for her role in the Weather Underground. In several references, Karkhanis mocked O'Malley for her efforts on behalf of these individuals, whom he dubbed terrorists, and questioned why she was so focused on them.

In comments he says are satire, he referred to O'Malley's "Queda-Camp," to her desire to "bring in all her indicted, convicted and freed-on-bail terrorist friends" to college jobs, and so forth. He wrote that she "does not worry about the 'ordinary' adjunct -- but she is worried about convicted terrorists."

Prior to filing the suit, O'Malley's lawyer sent Karkhanis a letter demanding that he retract all of these statements or face a lawsuit. Her lawyer, Joseph Martin Carasso, said in an interview Thursday that the suit that has now been filed does not detail the statements that could be challenged later and that there could be many beyond those noted in the letter.

Karkhanis said that he does not believe O'Malley to be a terrorist (or a queen, which he calls her frequently), and that he is using satire to point to larger issues. He also noted that O'Malley has been a prominent player in union politics in New York City, where she has taken numerous public positions on issues -- some controversial. And he said that the factual basis behind the terrorism jabs -- that O'Malley went to bat for these individuals -- has been demonstrated by e-mail messages he posted on his Web site.

Carasso, her lawyer, said it was "not prudent" to comment on the claim that the Web site's references to O'Malley as a supporter of terrorists are satire.

He did say, however, that "falsely accusing or alleging someone is a terrorist or is aiding terrorists in the current year, post-9/11, is a serious charge" and that O'Malley has "suffered as a result." He added: "There are people who know her on campus and in the academic community only as a result of the defamatory statements he's made."

The principles of academic freedom are important and are part of why O'Malley is suing, Carasso said. "What the Web site is trying to do is to silence Susan O'Malley by branding her a terrorist, which is the exact opposite of a free debate." (O'Malley did not respond to e-mail messages seeking an interview and Carasso said he was responding on her behalf.)

Several CUNY faculty members who have been critical of their union have been blogging in defense of Karkhanis, arguing that his blog deserves First Amendment protection and suggesting that leaders of the union are nervous about the popularity of his newsletter, particularly given active opposition that came close to unseating the union leadership in the last election and that is expected to mount another challenge soon.

KC Johnson, a Brooklyn College professor, noted that "PSC president Barbara Bowen has suggested that academic freedom protected" the right of a professor to assert in a blog that religious people were "moral retards." Johnson asked: "Will she now similarly apply her flexible definition of the concept, and rebuke O’Malley’s attempt to silence Karkhanis?"

Rina Yarmish, chair of mathematics and computer science at Kingsborough and head of the faculty union there, said that she was concerned about the suit against her colleague. "There is no question that she did try to find them jobs," she said of those for whom O'Malley's assistance was criticized. Yarmish said that she did not see how anyone could have read the newsletter's criticisms, however barbed, as meaning that O'Malley is a terrorist. "I don't think anyone interpreted it that way," she said. What Karkhanis did, she said, was "to make public to the faculty certain items that were not well known."

Of the suit, Yarmish said that "an attempt to silence a person for criticizing another individual really is tantamount to denying him the right to academic freedom, which is a mainstay of academic life."

Yarmish led the slate that challenged the union leadership in the last election and her critique of the union is similar to that made by Karkhanis. Both complain that contracts have not won economic gains for faculty members, and both complain that an emphasis on political issues has left the union without political clout.

Dorothee Benz, a spokeswoman for the Professional Staff Congress, said via e-mail that the union "is not a party to Susan O'Malley's lawsuit against Sharad Karkhanis. We are unfamiliar with its details and cannot judge its legal merits."

As to the newsletter and its author's rights, she said: "The PSC is a strong defender of free speech, and we defend Karkhanis's right to free speech. The PSC itself has been a frequent target of Karkhanis's vitriol, and much of what he has said about us is inaccurate and repugnant, but we have never questioned his right to free speech."

Benz added, however: "Free speech, however, has limits, as any first year law student knows. O'Malley's case concerns one of those limits, where the right to free speech comes up against the harm caused by libelous statements. Whether accusing someone of aiding and training terrorists, in a post-9/11 world, rises to meet the legal standards that define libel is up to the courts to decide."

As for Karkhanis, he said he would not back down, and that he planned to continue his work. His newsletter, he said, "is the only voice to opposition for Barbara Bowen and the union. It is a very strong voice. It is humorous. It has satire. It has pictures. It has news people are not privy to."


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