Tufts University is postponing a talk by Anthony Scaramucci, who was briefly a spokesman for President Trump, after he threatened to sue a student who wrote an unflattering opinion piece about him in the student newspaper.
An attorney retained by Scaramucci, Samuel Lieberman, sent a letter to the graduate student who wrote the opinion piece and to the editor in chief of the Tufts Daily. The letter explained that Lieberman’s firm had been retained to “pursue claims arising from blatantly false and defamatory statements,” and demanding a retraction of certain statements and an apology. The letter was published by the Boston Globe.
The news sparked an online debate about freedom of speech and freedom of the press on college campuses.
In his letter, Lieberman cited a case in which even statements that contained some amount of opinion were found to be defamatory when they claimed a public official had been unethical, and wrote that Scaramucci “has never been charged nor found to have committed any ethical violation. . .”
A spokesman for Tufts, Patrick Collins, said in a written statement Monday that the Boston-area school is disappointed by Scaramucci’s action.
This fall, more than 200 students signed a petition saying Scaramucci is not qualified to serve on the Board of Advisors for the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts.
“The university has been working to facilitate a conversation that had been scheduled for Monday evening between Fletcher School students and Mr. Scaramucci about his background, experience and the petition calling for his removal from the Fletcher School Board of Advisors,” Collins said.
“In light of recent developments, we are postponing the event until these pending legal matters are resolved.”
Scaramucci, a 1986 graduate of the university, was appointed to a five-year term on the board in 2016. The university has 10 such boards, which have no fiduciary responsibility or other authority, Collins said, but offer advice to deans and center directors based on discussions among the members.
Scaramucci did not respond immediately to a request for comment Monday, but he responded publicly on Twitter, saying, “All I need is an apology and correction. Get the facts right. Defamation is not unflattering coverage. It’s defamation.”
He also wrote, “I asked for an apology. Plain and simple. In our country defamation comes with its consequences.”
The Fletcher student who created the petition seeking the removal of Scaramucci, Carter Banker, said she had been concerned about Scaramucci’s role after his controversial stint as spokesman for Trump, which ended abruptly after a vulgar tirade in an interview with the New Yorker was published this summer.
But Banker said she was spurred to action when she saw his publication, the Scaramucci Post, share a poll on social media this fall about how many Jewish people were killed in the Holocaust. She said the publication later apologized, but in her opinion, it was another example of his questionable judgment.
In the petition, signed by about 240 Fletcher students, graduates and faculty members, Banker argued her belief that “his very public, embarrassing conduct reflects poorly on our institution,” and she questioned how valuable his advice could be to the school.
In the letter, Lieberman wrote that the poll was posted without Scaramucci’s consent by an employee who is Jewish, who apologized and who explained it had been intended to highlight ignorance about the Holocaust.
This month, a Fletcher student, Camilo Caballero, wrote two opinion pieces arguing that Scaramucci was unfit for the post on the Fletcher School board.
“A man who is irresponsible, inconsistent, an unethical opportunist and who exuded the highest degree of disreputability should not be on the Fletcher Board,” Caballero wrote in the Tufts Daily.
“. . . If his credentials lie in the billions of dollars he made on Wall Street, then we have, as a school, abandoned our principles and vision,” Caballero wrote.
Lieberman said in a written statement, “Mr. Caballero and The Tufts Daily crossed a line in falsely claiming Mr. Scaramucci ‘makes his Twitter accessible to friends interested in giving comfort to Holocaust deniers.’ This was reprehensibly false factual assertion — not opinion.
“It is demonstrably false because the ‘friend’ was a man with a strong Jewish identity who publicly stated two weeks earlier that he (and Scaramucci) had the exact opposite intent: To combat Holocaust deniers.” He said the claim that Scaramucci is an unethical opportunist was presented as fact but has no basis. Scaramucci will vigorously defend his integrity against false allegations, he wrote. “Mr. Caballero can end this now by apologizing for the statements where he crossed the line.”
Banker said she was in class not long after the first opinion piece was published when she was startled to receive an email from Scaramucci, asking to be invited to campus. She said she spoke with administrators, and they agreed to host a moderated discussion between Scaramucci and the Fletcher student body.
She said the letter to Caballero and Gil Jacobson, the editor in chief of the Tufts Daily, initially shocked her, but then she felt it was illustrative of Scaramucci’s character. “It’s purely an intimidation tactic. . . . He’s doing this to shut people up,” Banker said.
Caballero directed questions to his attorney, Matthew Segal. Segal did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday morning.
Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said the group offered to help.
“Sending a graduate student a letter accusing him of something two days before Thanksgiving and demanding a response within five days is clearly mean-spirited,” Rose said. “The ACLU of Massachusetts is not going to allow Mr. Caballero or anyone who’s a journalist to be bullied into silence. There’s a long history in this country of trying to use defamation law to silence critics.”
In a written statement, Lieberman said: “It is ironic the ACLU has chosen the wrong side. Here, Mr. Caballero seeks to silence disfavored speech by asking Tufts to boycott Mr. Scaramucci. And Mr. Caballero has publicly advocated against inviting Mr. Scaramucci to Tufts for open debate. It is fine for Mr. Caballero to disagree with Mr. Scaramucci politically. But Mr. Caballero cannot use political differences as a pretext for defamation and a boycott.”
Caballero wrote in an opinion piece earlier this month that, “… the only way to preserve the Tufts and Fletcher reputation, is to send out a unified message to our administration, that we never asked for a meeting with Scaramucci, we will not be seduced by this clumsy attempt at misdirection and we will not attend this discussion.”
Frederick M. Lawrence, the secretary and chief executive of the Phi Beta Kappa society, who is a lecturer at Georgetown Law, said, “The Supreme Court has said when a public figure is involved, defamation requires that the reporting was done with knowledge of falsehood or reckless disregard for the truth. The burden of proof for a plaintiff who is a public figure in a defamation suit is very, very stiff.”
The First Amendment standard was intended to give breathing space for the media to explore controversial ideas and to write about public figures without self-censoring, he said, as long as reporters are operating with a reasonable belief in the truth of what they are writing.
“It’s really most unfortunate,” Lawrence said. “This is the essence of a free press and the essence of a university campus where students are engaged in free and robust debate.”
Jacobson, the editor in chief of the Tufts Daily, said he almost immediately consulted with a lawyer at the Student Press Law Center when he received the email from Scaramucci’s lawyer Tuesday. “With anything that we publish, as a student newspaper with a fairly wide readership,” including the surrounding community off campus, “we have to be prepared for all extremes to happen.”
The paper published a story Monday that stated that the paper had received the letter, which it published in full, and that the opinion pieces remain on the paper’s website with the original text.
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.