US professor sparks angry student backlash with blog post saying all men should commit sexual assault in high school

Mitchell Langbert says blog was intended to start debate about free speech on college campuses

Eliza Shapiro
Friday 05 October 2018 18:38
Protesters rally against Kavanaugh in DC

The blog post was meant to shock.

“If someone did not commit sexual assault in high school, then he is not a member of the male sex,” wrote Mitchell Langbert, an associate professor of business at Brooklyn College. He posted it on his personal blog just two hours after last Thursday’s hearing into allegations of sexual assault by Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

Mr Langbert continued: “In the future, having committed sexual assault in high school ought to be a prerequisite for all appointments, judicial and political. Those who did not play spin-the-bottle when they were 15 should not be in public life.”

Those comments have made Mr Langbert a new lightning rod in the debate that has consumed the nation in the wake of Mr Kavanaugh’s nomination.

On Thursday, hundreds of students gathered outside of the campus’ grand clock tower to demand Mr Langbert be fired.

His blog, which has drawn more than one million page views, has reignited a debate over how universities balance professors’ freedom of speech and students’ concerns that some protected speech can make them feel unsafe on campus.

In a phone interview, Mr Langbert apologised for “saying things that upset people,” adding that the original intent of his post was to start a debate about free speech on college campuses.

But he also said he felt victimised by the reaction.

“The way universities operate now are more like Southern lynch mobs of the early 20th century,” he said. “Basically that’s what I’m experiencing here.”

After his post began to spread on social media, Mr Langbert added a disclaimer on the post stating it was meant to be satirical.

Holding signs reading “our tuition, our decision” and “I feel unsafe,” students chanted, “from Kavanaugh to Langbert, all these men have got to go!” One of the protest’s organisers, Corrine Green, encouraged students to file complaints against Mr Langbert with the college’s Title IX office, which could be the first step in a formal investigation.

Students and a group of sympathetic professors said they were aware of the legal protections that tenure provides Mr Langbert, especially since the First Amendment offers an additional layer of protection to professors at public universities because they are government employees.

But Stephanie Jensen-Moulton, chair of the college’s music conservatory, said: “There’s also what seems like an incitement of violence in what he’s saying.” That argument was echoed by student protesters.

“It should be obvious that publicly stated support of rape and sexual violence isn’t a legitimate or acceptable political viewpoint,” said Daphna Tier, reading from a Title IX complaint she and other students are planning to submit.

Others mostly disagreed.

The union that represents City University of New York Schools also stood by Mr Langbert. “No matter how repugnant those positions may be, due process must be upheld in every case if it is to have meaning,” Fran Clark, a spokesman for the Professional Staff Congress, said in a statement.

But Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said Mr Langbert’s case could fall in a legal grey area.

“The First Amendment isn’t absolute,” she said. “The legal standard that applies here is whether Professor Langbert’s speech has disrupted his working relationships with other faculty and students and has diminished the ability to perform his job.”

Burt Neuborne, a professor at the New York University School of Law who has argued free speech cases before the Supreme Court, said: “I don’t think there’s close to a case for dismissing him under free speech norms, though it was in exceptionally bad taste.”

As some alumni vowed not to give to Brooklyn College until Mr Langbert is removed, a few current students said they did not want to see him go.

“They want to ruin his career for something stupid that he said,” said Logan Santos, a sophomore.

Michelle J Anderson, president of Brooklyn College, stood silently on the side as she observed the protest on Thursday, and promised to hold a forum about the controversy next week.

The New York Times

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