The Washington Post

Game of Thrones quote from professor = threat to shoot up the school?


The photo is above; are you quaking in your boots yet? Colleen Flaherty (Inside Higher Ed) reports:

Francis Schmidt, a professor of art and animation, … posted [on Google+] a picture of his young daughter doing yoga in a T-shirt with the new “Game of Thrones” season tagline in January, upon release of the trailer….

But one contact — a dean — who was notified automatically via Google that the picture had been posted apparently took it as a threat. In an e-mail, Jim Miller, the college’s executive director for human resources, told Schmidt to meet with him and two other administrators immediately in light of the “threatening e-mail.” …

Schmidt said he met with the administrators, including a security official, in one of their offices and was questioned repeatedly about the picture’s meaning and the popularity of “Game of Thrones.”

Schmidt said Miller asked him to use Google to verify the phrase, which he did, showing approximately 4 million hits. The professor said he asked why the photo had set off such a reaction, and that the security official said that “fire” could be a kind of proxy for “AK-47s.”

Despite Schmidt’s explanation, he was notified via e-mail later in the week that he was being placed on leave without pay, effectively immediately, and that he would have to be cleared by a psychiatrist before he returned to campus. Schmidt said he was diagnosed with depression in 2007 but was easily cleared for this review, although even the brief time away from campus set back his students, especially those on independent study.

Schmidt believes he was targeted in part because he filed a grievance against the college a week before the post for being passed up for a sabbatical….

[Bergen Community College President Kay] Walter said she did not believe that the college had acted unfairly, especially considering that there were three school shootings nationwide in January, prior to Schmidt’s post. has this statement from a Bergen Community College spokesman:

The referenced incident refers to a private personnel matter at Bergen Community College. Since January 1, 2014, 34 incidents of school shootings have occurred in the United States. In following its safety and security procedures, the college investigates all situations where a member of its community — students, faculty, staff or local residents — expresses a safety or security concern.

Investigate? Fine. But suspend a faculty member and require a psychiatric exam over this picture? That seems like a different story. Moreover, the “always investigate” policy, even if it does exist, doesn’t justify the initial “express[ion of] … concern” by the dean who was apparently so worried by the Google+ posting.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has more, plus a reminder of the threat by Firefly poster case from University of Wisconsin-Stout in 2011.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.



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Eugene Volokh · April 17, 2014

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