An Arizona professor will return to teaching classes this fall following a months-long campaign over a Thanksgiving email he sent out to the college community.
Professor Walter Kehowski, a tenured professor of mathematics at Glendale Community College in Glendale, Ariz., was initially put on forced administrative leave because of an email that directed readers to George Washington's "Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789" posted on politician Pat Buckhannon's website.
His penalty – implemented by the Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD), a large network of accredited institutions, which includes Glendale Community College – was reversed last Friday, however, because it restricted his freedom of speech rights.
"This settlement is a crucial victory for freedom of expression and fundamental fairness," explained Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the legal group that represented Kehowski, in a statement. "FIRE is pleased that MCCCD's unjust treatment of Kehowski has finally ceased and that he will now be able to resume his life and his teaching."
The problem began the day before Thanksgiving after the mathematics professor sent out a link to George Washington's Thanksgiving address on MCCCD's "announcements" listserv.
The address begins, "Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor, and Whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanks giving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many single favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness."
The proclamation was also listed on the website of Pat Buchanan, a conservative politician, columnist, and broadcaster. Buchanan ran for the presidency in 2000 as part of the Reform Party and was often criticized for mixing his religious views with his political positions.
Within a few weeks, five employees under MCCCD had complained about the email, noting that it was "derogatory" and "hostile" since it linked to the political website, which also contained policies about immigration.
An MCCCD panel found Kehowski guilty of violating two district policies – the Equal Employment Opportunity policy and the policies prohibiting unsolicited, non-work-related emails – and on Mar. 9, MCCCD Chancellor Rufus Glasper put the professor on administrative leave, recommending that he be dismissed.
Two other email problems have come up against Kehowski in the past as well. In 2004, district employees brought up a federal lawsuit against him over three emails that created a "hostile environment," which FIRE representatives say did not violate any MCCCD policies. In 2005, he was also put on administrative leave over another email about multiculturalism.
Following the most recent complaint, the math teacher contacted FIRE lawyers, who responded by sending a letter to Glasper explaining that a precedent U.S. Supreme Court decision showed that Kehowski has not been "hostile" with his email. They noted that employees were not required to visit the link that the professor attached, and that it was their own decision. They also explained that the district was inconsistent with their policies regarding unsolicited mail, noting that several employees have used the listserv in the same way in the past and not received punishment.
Glasper did not act upon the letter, however, so FIRE representatives issued a press release which then got picked up by news agencies who reported on it.
This past Friday, district administration and Kehowski finally reached a settlement, and he will now be allowed to return to teach classes in the fall. All his violations have been removed, but he will now be limited in his district email access.
"Dropping the charges against Kehowski was the only acceptable resolution to the district's excessive and unfair actions," concluded Lukianoff. "Hopefully, this settlement will remind other universities that abusing harassment policies to bully students and professors who engage in unpopular expression will not stand."