Liberal Studies professor Michael Rectenwald, known for criticizing social justice and political correctness under the Twitter handle @antipcnyuprof, filed a defamation lawsuit against NYU and four of its professors on Jan. 12 in Manhattan Supreme Court.
The professor, who proclaimed himself “deplorable,” alleges in the lawsuit that fellow professors Jacqueline Bishop, Amber Frost, Carley Moore and Theresa Senft made false statements in a department-wide email exchange between May 8 and 12 of last year that have damaged his personal and professional life. He said in the lawsuit that NYU did not intervene when necessary to end the harmful accusations.
The emails, included in the lawsuit, reveal claims by faculty that Rectenwald is a “racist, sexist, misogynistic, adderal-filled [sic] bully” as well as the “devil” with a “delusional, narcissistic, and drug-fueled narrative.”[googlepdf url=”https://www.nyunews.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/20-New-York-University-Mail-Re_-Congrats-to-M.-Rechtenwald-on-his-75K-advance-from-St.-Martins-Press.pdf” width=”100%” height=”600″]
In an interview with WSN, for which his assistant and one of his lawyers, Edward Paltzik, were present, Rectenwald was quick to draw the line between insults and defamation, arguing that the emails were clearly defamatory.
“This has been an orchestrated attempt to assail my character and destroy me professionally,” Rectenwald said. “This is not about my feelings. This is about my career, this is about my reputation as a professional. That has been assaulted.”
Rectenwald maintains in his lawsuit that the verbal harassment, which has caused him emotional distress, only goes one way.
“You look at the emails and see my responses to them, you’ll see the contrast between how I interacted with them and how they talked to me,” Rectenwald said. “How they insulted me, how they used the most obscene, absurd epithets and allegations whereas I never mentioned one person by name.”
A look at the emails Rectenwald sent to his colleagues in response suggests otherwise.
“I don’t care what your [bachelor’s degree] was in, Amber, nor have I said anything about it,” Rectenwald wrote in an email dated May 10. “Further, I am hardly in misery. I have transcended all of this garbage and am enjoying writing about the insidious ideology that has overtaken the university system, nationwide and beyond, while being handsomely rewarded for it.”
In an interview with CLG News, a website Rectenwald founded and edits alongside his assistant of 15 years Lori Price, Rectenwald expressed his reasoning for filing the lawsuit.
“My ‘colleagues’ have utterly contaminated the entire faculty and curtailed my career by at least 10 years,” Rectenwald said. “I had no choice but to sue them for their outrageous lies and imputations, and NYU for essentially condoning their outrageously defamatory remarks.”
Rectenwald claimed in the lawsuit that NYU should have stopped the email chain.[googlepdf url=”https://www.nyunews.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/1-Summons-Complaint-EFiled-with-Index-Number.pdf” width=”100%” height=”600″]
The emails began as an acknowledgement of Rectenwald’s forthcoming book, “Springtime for Snowflakes: ‘Social Justice’ and Its Postmodern Parent.”
Rectenwald is unsure of what changed the tone of the emails into what he describes as vitriolic and abusive towards him.
“Apparently something I tweeted set them off; I don’t want to say ‘triggered,’ but apparently it triggered them,” he said.
Rectenwald was placed on paid leave by NYU shortly after outing himself as the owner of the once-anonymous Twitter account in October 2016. He resumed his position earlier this month.
The clinical professor claims he was forced to go on leave, although LS Dean Fred Schwarzbach said in a series of emails that Rectenwald requested the leave.
“The fact of the matter is that this leave has nothing to do with your opinions or your take on the academy and was not involuntary; rather, the truth is, the leave is something you said you wanted and needed,” Schwarzbach wrote in an email dated Nov. 11, 2016.
Rectenwald believes the controversial opinions he expressed on Twitter were the grounds for his leave but still stands by the account.
“My aim was to expose the ferocity with which non-complying views expressed on social media by an anonymous academic would be attacked,” Rectenwald wrote in The Washington Post soon after going on leave. “But I take issue with the implication that I personally harmed or betrayed anyone simply by posting a controversial news item.”
Michael Isaacson, the former adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who gained notoriety for tweeting that it was “a privilege to teach future dead cops,” was also involved in the email exchange.
“Sounds like you need a safe space, snowflake,” he wrote to Rectenwald.
In the lawsuit, Rectenwald also accused Isaacson of calling him an “asshole” four times.
Rectenwald said he has not received physical threats but had “reasons to believe that there was some possible jeopardy,” referring most likely to Isaacson, a member of “Antifa.”
“One of the interlocutors on the email list, who shouldn’t have been on it, is known to be a member of a group,” Rectenwald said before consulting with his lawyer and declining to finish his statement.
Rectenwald said the Equal Opportunity Employment chief officer suggested he move from his regular office in the LS department to his current one in the Russian and Slavic Studies department for his safety.
“It was a hostile work environment,” Rectenwald said. “Not only being shunned, but being treated as a sort of moral leper, being treated as a pariah, people refusing to get on elevators with me, things of that sort.”
Rectenwald believes the lawsuit is telling of what he calls the surveillance state environment on many university campuses today.
“Everytime you open your mouth, you could be accused of committing a microaggression or some other bias or infraction,” Rectenwald said, reading off of his notes. “This is a terrible way to run a university. It is antithetical to intellectual work.”
He added that the criticism leveled against him makes a point about how NYU handles dissenting opinions.
“The bigger picture is that this is a question of academic freedom and tolerance and the ability to have first amendment expression without having it curtailed, without having it administratively chastised and without having to face basically libel and defamation in the process,” he said. “[This] shows that a particular ideology has been treated as doctrine and that anyone who dares and has the temerity to even question it faces a veritable rhetorical firing squad.”
Paltzik echoed the plaintiff’s principle that indoctrination is not education.
“In addition to professor Rectenwald, the students and their parents who pay exorbitant tuition rates and entrust NYU and its professors to educate, rather than indoctrinate, are victims here,” Paltzik said. “This litigation will reveal some truly outrageous and shocking behavior.”
In the meantime, Rectenwald has four years until his five-year employment contract with NYU expires. He remains unsure of whether he will stay at NYU if he loses the lawsuit.
“I have no idea what would happen if that happened, and I won’t surmise about any outcomes,” Rectenwald said.
Price was copied on the initial email thread. She said that the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Group — or the Conformity, Inequity and Exclusion Group as Rectenwald referred to it — was almost too eager to issue a statement against Rectenwald.
“You can’t express your thoughts without getting condemned by an inclusion group, ironically?” she said.
University Spokesperson John Beckman initially said, “This lawsuit is without merit.” He responded to a second request for comment by repeating the statement.
Professor Moore declined to comment, and the remaining professors involved have not responded to requests for comment.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Jan. 29 print edition. Email Sarah Jackson at [email protected].