MANHATTAN (CN) - For some professors fired for offending students with their opinions, academic freedom may depend on whether one teaches at a state or county institution.
In a case litigated in Manhattan Federal Court and ultimately appealed to the 2nd Circuit, Westchester Community College contended that, as a branch of the State University of New York, it had 11th Amendment immunity from a three-year-old lawsuit filed by ex-adjunct professor Carol Leitner, whom they fired for praising Arizona's controversial immigration law after a Mexican student read a poem.
Since 1990, SUNY colleges have been deemed immune from private lawsuits after South African Professor Ernest Dube lost his appeal against the Stony Brook branch for allegedly firing him for his anti-Zionist views.
Multiple district courts within the 2nd Circuit considered SUNY as "arm of the state" in subsequently immunizing it from sacked professors filing civil lawsuits.
In a unanimous opinion on Wednesday, however, the 2nd Circuit found that Westchester Community College did not enjoy the same privilege as its sister colleges because New York State neither controls it or provides the majority of its funding.
"WCC receives one-third of its budget from New York State, but the state is not otherwise
responsible for WCC's debts or for satisfying judgments against WCC," U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin wrote. "Rather, Westchester County, which appoints half of WCC's Board of Trustees, has the power to issue bonds and levy taxes to raise funds for WCC."
In addition, Chin wrote, "WCC is not substantially controlled by the state. The governor appoints four of WCC's ten board members, while the Westchester County Board appoints five members and WCC's student body elects one member."
Both realities weigh against a finding that the college is entitled to sovereign immunity, Chin said.
The ruling spells more litigation for a case that pits what some describe as offensive speech against what others call a stifling atmosphere of political correctness on campus.
Leitner started working as an adjunct professor at the college in 1981, teaching classes in "Speech Communication" and "Voice and Diction."
"For the next thirty year, Professor Leitner developed the communication skills of her students through spirited -- and sometimes controversial -- discussion of student speeches and presentations that covered diverse subjects and perspectives," her complaint said.
In 2004,, Leitner said, she clashed with administrators over "her refusal to lower her academic standards." Three years later, she says she was then called to task to "address a number of student complaints that Leitner made offensive remarks during class," the 23-page opinion states. Leitner's reviews from students on RateMyProfessors.com leave the impression that she was a polarizing teacher. Three students who left her most glowing reviews also described her as "eccentric," and her harshest critics regularly critiqued her as "rude."
The college directed her not to use "any language that [could] be construed as abusive, belittling, humiliating, or insulting" and to "treat every student with courtesy and respect," according to the ruling.
The incident that led to her firing occurred in the fall of 2010, shortly after the Arizona's so-called "show me your papers" law came into effect.
A Mexican student satirized "America the Beautiful" by a riffing on the song with an untitled poem that sang of "amber waves of skepticism" and "crown[ing] thy diminishing good."
During the classroom discussion that followed, "Leitner expressed her approval of Arizona's controversial immigration law, and her doubts about the fairness of spending taxpayer money on public services for illegal immigrants," the opinion states.
After the student's mother complained that the comments "humiliated" her daughter, administrators started the round of hearings that led to Leitner's firing on July 6, 2011, according to her complaint.
Lawyers for both parties did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
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