A former longtime adjunct professor is suing Westchester Community College after she said the school fired her after she revealed her support for Arizona’s controversial 2010 immigration law in class, among other opinions.
A lawyer for Carol Leitner, 68, describes a suffocating atmosphere of political correctness at the school in the lawsuit, saying that policies for faculty outlined in the student handbook “impose a degree of academic censorship that is unheard of at a public college.”
May. 17, 2012
The lawsuit was filed Friday in U.S. District Court in White Plains.
Patrick Hennessey, a spokesman for WCC, declined to comment on the matter, saying the college does not speak publicly about pending litigation.
Leitner, a speech professor, started at the school in 1981 and taught until July 2011, when she was terminated, according to the suit.
Her trouble with the school apparently began in 2004, when she told a student with large lips that he would need to press his lips together more firmly if he wanted to properly pronounce bilabial sounds, like the first consonant in “bed.” The student complained, and Leitner was disciplined.
Three years later, Leitner drew another complaint and a disciplinary hearing when she admonished a poor-performing student, saying, “If you speak like that, you are never going to get a job.”
Leitner said that interaction was met with a reprisal from Jianping Wang, the school’s associate dean of academic affairs, who urged Leitner in a disciplinary letter to “reexamine” her classroom demeanor.
“I expect you not to use any language that can be construed as abusive, belittling, humiliating, or insulting to any students in the future, intentionally or unintentionally,” Wang wrote in 2007.
But it was three years after that incident, on Nov. 15, 2010, that Leitner said in class that she supported the then-new Arizona law, which required police officers to check the immigration status of people they had a reasonable suspicion were in the country illegally. (The law was subsequently challenged in court, and the Supreme Court is expected to rule on it next month.)
Leitner said that her comments — which came up during a class discussion about illegal immigration after a Hispanic student sang an altered version of “America, the Beautiful” — ultimately led the college to discipline her a third time, eventually leading to Leitner’s dismissal.
Leitner “questioned the fairness of providing certain public services, like emergency medical care, to illegal immigrants who did not pay taxes,” according to the suit. But after hearing a complaint from the student’s mother about the comment, Gabrielle Miller, the chairperson of the communications department, called that opinion and others expressed in the class “offensive,” and told Leitner not to discuss a “political science” topic in her speech and diction class, according to the suit.
“The real reason for punishing Professor Leitner was not the fact that she addressed a political science topic in her class,” Catherine Foti, a lawyer for Leitner, wrote in the suit. “The real reason was that she expressed a political opinion with which Professor Miller did not agree.”
A year later, on June 9, 2011, a third disciplinary hearing was held, and a month after that, President Joseph N. Hankin fired Leitner, according to the suit.
The suit does not specify the amount of damages that Leitner is seeking, but it accuses WCC of a number of charges, including retaliation based on constitutionally protected speech and lack of reasonable notice.
“Professor Leitner has suffered, is now suffering, and will continue to suffer irreparable harm from the loss of her free speech rights,” Foti wrote.
The college is named as a defendant in the suit, in addition to Hankin, Miller, Wang and Chet Rogalski, the former vice president of academic affairs who left last summer.
Leitner, who earned degrees from Hunter College and the City University of New York and lives in Connecticut, had risen to Senior Adjunct Professor before she was terminated, she said.