In yet another cautionary social media tale, California State University, Fresno -- and federal officials -- are investigating a non-tenure-track lecturer in history for inflammatory tweets he’s made about politics.
Lars Maischak’s Twitter posts this semester include:
- To save American democracy, Trump must hang. The sooner and the higher, the better. #TheResistance #DeathToFascism
- Don't tell me to "obey the Law." "The Law" in this country is one part Racism, one part Class Oppression, all Capitalism. #TheResistance
- [After Ash Wednesday] Judging from the largely absent facial markings this year, Christianity is paying the price for its pact with Fascism. Students abandon it.
Many in academe wouldn’t bat an eye at Maischak’s comments, since professors tend to skew to the political left, and a large number have expressed particular concern about the rhetoric and actions of the Trump administration. Professors themselves often employ their own brands of rhetoric, using strong language for effect that they say should not be taken literally. And Maischak has since said he never meant to incite actual violence against the president.
The tweets nevertheless caused a stir on campus last weekend, after the far-right website Breitbart ran an article about them. Here’s the thrust of the piece: “This is today’s academia. These are types of voices hired to teach recent high school graduates American history. How do you think George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson fare when taught by one who sees the world in this way? How do you think America’s Judeo-Christian heritage fares?”
Where the do the feds come in? Joseph Castro, university president, said during conference call with reporters Wednesday that Fresno State alerted federal authorities to Maischak’s tweets Saturday after learning about them from an unnamed news source -- and that the university has since been in “constant” contact with them. He declined to disclose the status of any federal investigation or name a specific agency taking the lead, but said the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security are all aware of the situation.
Why? Castro said Maischak’s comments were “serious” and merited a full review.
In earlier statement, Castro said, “Maischak’s personal views and commentary, with its inclusion of violent and threatening language, is obviously inconsistent with the core values of our university. … In response to these concerns, we have conducted a preliminary review to ensure that it is clear that the statements made by him were as a private citizen, not as a representative of Fresno State.”
The university’s “primary concern is for the safety of our students and with providing a conducive learning environment,” the statement continues. “We acknowledge that our faculty have an obligation to establish and maintain ethical and professional conduct, inside and outside of the classroom. … The review of these and any other statements will be conducted in the context of rights of free expression, but also for potential direct threats of violence that may violate the law.”
Maischak declined to answer specific questions about his case Wednesday evening but said in an emailed statement that he’d been contacted by the Secret Service and was cooperating fully with their ongoing investigation. He said he never intended harm to anyone, nor to incite harm.
“I ask forgiveness of those who felt threatened or offended” by the tweets, he said. “My statements each represent the end point of a dark train of thought triggered by my despair over the actions of the present U.S. government.”
Maischak, who has deleted his Twitter account, said he had 28 followers at the time of his posts and was seeking catharsis in recording his thoughts.
“I never expected them to be read by anyone but a close circle of acquaintances who would know to place them in their context,” he said. “To treat Twitter as of no more consequence than a journal was a poor decision. … In this spirit, I am prepared to take full responsibility for my statements.”
That’s a tad more tempered than Maischak’s previous statement to local media, released on Monday. In it, he said that Trump-sanctioned arrests of undocumented immigrants recalled visions of 1930s Germany.
“Most observers will consider these arrests a blatant injustice,” he said. “My thought at the time was that if this were to become a mass phenomenon, encompassing in the end all 11 million undocumented immigrants, the guilt amassed by the present government and its supporters would be tremendous, and would lead to demands for vengeance.”
In general, “the substantial continuity between fascism and the present Republican Party makes it likely that the deeds of [Trump’s] government will be the subject of court proceedings, or even a tribunal akin to the Nuremburg Trials,” Maischak, who is from Germany, said Monday. “Historical precedent suggests that such proceedings often end with the incarceration or execution of the leadership.”
Still, Maischak added, “I would be horrified to learn that anyone would have read this tweet as an invitation to violence. I still do not think, within the context at the time, and within the context of my other statements on Twitter, that any reasonable reader could come to that conclusion, however.” To that point, he said he was appalled that Castro “is allowing himself to be instrumentalized for a right-wing smear campaign.”
Indeed, leftist professors have become something of a favorite topic for websites such as Breitbart in recent years. Many of the profiles on the controversial Professor Watchlist cite Breitbart and Fox News as sources, for example.
Maischak’s case parallels many others in recent months, with mixed outcomes for professors involved. George Ciccariello-Maher, an associate professor of politics and global studies at Drexel University, for example, wished for “white genocide” for Christmas on Twitter and just this month tweeted that he wanted to “vomit” after seeing a civilian give up an airline seat in first class for a U.S. soldier. Drexel’s administration flip-flopped in its public response to the first comment but ultimately declared it “protected speech.” A small group of Faculty Senate members is now reportedly seeking an investigation into Ciccariello-Maher’s impact on the university.
In another case, Oberlin College in November fired Joy Karega, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition, after The Tower, a pro-Israel website, uncovered a series of anti-Semitic, anti-Israel and conspiratorial Facebook posts Karega made about world events. Oberlin first affirmed her right to free expression but then backtracked, following a push from the college’s Board of Trustees.
The University of Tennessee at Knoxville investigated but decided not to punish Glenn Reynolds, Beauchamp Brogan Distinguished Professor of Law and well-known conservative blogger at Instapundit, for his tweet saying motorists should “run down” protesters blocking the highway outside of Charlotte, N.C., following a police shooting in September. Somewhat like Maischak, Reynolds said he wasn’t actually encouraging people to target protesters (some of his critics argued otherwise).
Scholars have different views as to when and if extramural utterances should be relevant to one’s professional standing. That question was at the heart of the Steven Salaita controversy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for example, which reverberated across academe. A brief recap: Salaita made anti-Israel remarks on Twitter and lost a promised tenured position in 2014, but the administration faced major fallout from its actions.
The American Association of University Professors maintains that extramural speech should only be investigated if it calls into question a professor's professional fitness. And even then, inquiries should only be led by a faculty member’s peers.
As for Maischak, Robert O’Neil, a First Amendment scholar and former president of the University of Virginia, said Fresno State is within its rights to investigate him.
O’Neil said it would be hard to argue that Maischak meant Trump should “hang tough” or anything other than hang -- literally -- based on his public statements. “Bizarre” declarations of harming a president (or even judges), must be taken seriously, O’Neil said, “as much on social media as in a letter.”
Moreover, he said, Maischak’s tweet lodged in a “highly charged political environment,” and his discipline of history arguably imposes on him a “higher level of academic commitment here than, say, for a chemist or mathematician.”
For those reasons, among others, O’Neil said, comments such as Maischak’s do “risk a charge of incompetence.”
Maischak’s union, the California Faculty Association, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Castro said Maischak has been working at Fresno State since 2006 and confirmed that he’s still employed and teaching (though the university is currently on spring break). Possible future interruptions to his teaching schedule will be dealt with in a manner least disruptive to students, he said.