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The New York Times article reported a day ago that Prof Avital Ronell at New York University was found to be responsible for sexual harassment.

There's a letter of support for this professor (see below), sent to that university's president and provost, signed by many professors – and many of whom are professors at that university. This letter claims that the complaint is malicious, and objects to any judgement against her. The legal argument could be made that such a letter signed by many powerful academics constitutes retaliation and defamation, both of which are illegal.

Could such professors who signed the letter be at risk of losing their tenure, because the letter could now constitute a form of retaliation and defamation of the victim (the male student)?


The letter of support: The letter of support in this case can be found at the blog of Philosophy Professor Brian Leiter here. Here is the full text with highlights of parts that are possibly defamatory to the victim in the case (emphasis added):

May, 11, 2018

Andrew Hamilton President, New York University

Katharine Fleming Provost, New York University


Dear President Hamilton and Provost Fleming,

We write as long-term colleagues of Professor Avital Ronell who has been under investigation by the Title IX offices at New York University. Although we have no access to the confidential dossier, we have all worked for many years in close proximity to Professor Ronell and accumulated collectively years of experience to support our view of her capacity as teacher and a scholar, but also as someone who has served as Chair of both the Departments of German and Comparative Literature at New York University. We have all seen her relationship with students, and some of us know the individual who has waged this malicious campaign against her. We wish to communicate first in the clearest terms our profound an enduring admiration for Professor Ronell whose mentorship of students has been no less than remarkable over many years. We deplore the damage that this legal proceeding causes her, and seek to register in clear terms our objection to any judgment against her. We hold that the allegations against her do not constitute actual evidence, but rather support the view that malicious intention has animated and sustained this legal nightmare.

As you know, Professor Ronell has changed the course of German Studies, Comparative Literature, and the field of philosophy and literature over the years of her teaching, writing, and service. She is responsible for building the field of literary studies at New York University, but also throughout Europe as a result of her brilliant scholarship and spirit of intellectual generosity. Her students now teach at leading research institutions in the US, France, and Germany, and her intellectual influence is felt throughout the humanities, including media and technology studies, feminist theory, and comparative literary study. There is arguably no more important figure in literary studies at New York University than Avital Ronell whose intellectual power and fierce commitment to students and colleagues has established her as an exemplary intellectual and mentor throughout the academy. As you know, she is the Jacques Derrida Chair of Philosophy at the European Graduate School and she was recently given the award of Chevalier of Arts and Letters by the French government.

We testify to the grace, the keen wit, and the intellectual commitment of Professor Ronell and ask that she be accorded the dignity rightly deserved by someone of her international standing and reputation. If she were to be terminated or relieved of her duties, the injustice would be widely recognized and opposed. The ensuing loss for the humanities, for New York University, and for intellectual life during these times would be no less than enormous and would rightly invite widespread and intense public scrutiny. We ask that you approach this material with a clear understanding of the long history of her thoughtful and successive mentorship, the singular brilliance of this intellectual, the international reputation she has rightly earned as a stellar scholar in her field, her enduring commitments to the university, and the illuminated world she has brought to your campus where colleagues and students thrive in her company and under her guidance. She deserves a fair hearing, one that expresses respect, dignity, and human solicitude in addition to our enduring admiration.

Sincerely,

Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor, Department of Comparative Literature, University of California, Berkeley, President-Elect, Modern Language Association (2020)

Emily Apter, Julius Silver Professor of French and Comparative Literature Chair, Department of Comparative Literature, New York University

Catharine Stimpson, University Professor, New York University, former Dean of the Graduate School

John T. Hamilton, William R. Kenan Professor of German and Comparative Literature Chair, Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, Harvard University

Isabelle Alfandary, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Présidente de l assemblée collégiale du collège international de philosophie, Paris

Jean-Luc Nancy, Professeur émérite, Université de Strasbourg

[NAME OMITTED - This person disputes that they ever authorised their name to be added to the letter (see here).]

Geoffrey Bennington, Asa G. Candler Professor of Modern French Thought, Emory University; Chair, Department of Comparative Literature

Laurence Rickels, writer and professor, European Graduate School; Visiting Professor, New York University

Pierre Alfari, Professor, Paris School of Fine Arts

Peter Connor, Professor of German, Barnard College

Manthia Diawara, Professor of Cinema Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University

Denis Hollier, Department of French Literature, Thought, and Culture, New York University

Christopher Wood, Professor and Chair, Department of German, New York University

Susan Bernstein, Professor of German and Comparative Literature, Brown University

Cathy Caruth, Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters, Cornell University

Cynthia Chase, Professor of French and Comparative Literature, Cornell University

Jonathan Culler, Distinguished Professor of French and Comparative Literature, Cornell University

Diane Davis, Professor and Chair, Department of Rhetoric, University of Texas-Austin

Hent de Vries, Paulette Goddard Professor of the Humanities, New York University

Bernhard Siegert, Professor for the History and Theory of Cultural Techniques Bauhaus University Weimar

Joan W. Scott, Professor Emerita, School of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study

Hans-Christian von Herrmann, Professor of Literature, Technical University Berlin

Suzanne Doppelt, writer and photographer, Paris; faculty, European Graduate School

Rudiger Campe, Professor of German, NYU and Frankfurt an der Oder Vincent Broqua, Associate Professor of French at the University of Paris Est Créteil

Christopher Fynsk, Dean and Professor, European Graduate School

Elizabeth Rottenberg, Professor of Philosophy, DePaul University

Antje Pfannkuchen, Associate Professor of German, Dickinson College

Emanuela Bianchi, Associate Professor, Department of Comparative Literature New York University

Mina Cheon, faculty, Maryland Institute College of Art

Michael G. Levine, Professor of German, Rutgers University

Paul North, Professor of German, Yale University

Elissa Marder, Chair, Department of French and Italian, Emory University

Nicola Behrmann, Associate Professor, German Languages and Literatures, Rutgers University- New Brunswick

Kristina Mendocino, Mellon Assistant Professor of Humanities and German, Brown University

Jeffrey Wallon, Professor of Comparative Literature, Hampshire College Francois Noudelmann, Professor of Philosophy, University of Paris VIII

Jesus Mario Lozano Alamilla, Professor of Music, Universidad de las Americas Puebla, Mexico

Sam Weber, Professor of German, Northwestern University

Peter Fenves, Joan and Sarepta Harrison Professor of Literature, Department of German, Northwestern University

Shoshana Felman, Woodruff Professor of Comparative Literature and French, Emory University

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, University Professor, Columbia University

Slavoj Zizek, Distinguished Professor, Humanities Institute, University of London, Global Professor, New York University

Marc Redfield, Chair, Department of Comparative Literature, Brown University

Peter Szendy, David Herlihy Professor of Comparative Literature and Humanities

Anselm Haverkamp, Professor emeritus NYU and Honorary Professor of Philosophy, Ludwig Maximilians-University Munich/ Germany

Barbara Vinken, Chair of Romance Languages, Ludwig Maximilians-University Munich, Germany >
Arno Böhler, Professor University of Vienna, Department of Philosophy and University of Applied Arts Vienna

Susanne Valerie Granzer, Professor, University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna

Elizabeth Weed, editor, differences, former director, Pembroke Center, Brown University

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    Precisely nothing. – user_of_math Aug 16 '18 at 8:03
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    Do we really need the list of all peoples who signed the letter here? – user105041 Feb 28 at 7:47
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    @holla: Yes, we do. If for no other reason, it identifies which of the signatories work for NYU and which don't, which bears on the question asked by the OP. It also has the benefit of identifying the full facts of the case. The signatories to this letter should be clearly identified in all relevant discussions. They do not get to memory-hole this. – Ben Mar 1 at 21:38
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Could such professors who signed the letter be at risk of losing their tenure, because the letter could now constitute a form of retaliation and defamation of the victim (the male student)?

Any answer to this question would be pure speculation at this stage.

Like most US universities, NYU's tenure policies are publicly available. Their Statement in Regard to Academic Freedom and Tenure describes what is considered cause to revoke tenure, but as is common at most institutions, the language is very general:

VI 2 a) [Adequate cause] Adequate cause includes (but is not limited to) one or more of the following: incompetent or inefficient service; neglect of duty; repeated and willful disregard of the rules of academic freedom as set forth in this statement; physical or mental incapacity; or any other conduct of a character seriously prejudicial to his or her teaching or research or to the welfare of the University. [Cf. University Bylaws, Section 92, Removal of Tenured Faculty and Tenured Librarians.]

There is no specific mention of "retaliation" or "defamation" as causes. So, the question would be whether signing this letter constitutes "conduct of a character seriously prejudicial to his or her teaching or research or to the welfare of the University" (or one of the other things listed). That decision would be up to the administration, the Faculty Tenure Committee, and very likely the Tenure Appeal Committee. I don't think we have any way of guessing what they will do. However, the sheer number of layers of procedure needed to revoke tenure would at least suggest that a lot of people would have to be awfully motivated to make it happen.

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Could such professors who signed the letter be at risk of losing their tenure, because the letter could now constitute a form of retaliation and defamation of the victim (the male student)?

To assist in answering this question I have edited your question to add the text of the letter. Most of the letter is not defamatory, and consists primarily of a character reference for Prof Ronell. However, there are a few parts in the first paragraph (the highlighted parts) which claim that the complaint is malicious, and this could definitely constitute a defamatory statement against the male complainant in the case. It would be open to the complainant to sue the professors who wrote the letter, and they would have standard defences available to them. This includes a "defence of truth" which means that they would be given an opportunity to prove their assertion that the claim was in fact malicious (and if they could prove this on the balance of probabilities it would constitute a successful defence). Given that the university has found that Prof Ronell did commit the conduct that was the subject of the complaint, it would be hard to prove that the complaint was malicious.

Note that in a defamation claim there would also be an issue about publication of the letter. The letter evidently was not intended as a public document, and was only sent to potential signatories and the two NYU staff to whom it was addressed. It was made public by people other than the signatories, due to its newsworthy character. If the signatories were sued for defamation they would probably try to defend the claim on the basis that they had not intended any publication of the letter. (Some of the signatories, such as Jizek, have made subsequent public remarks on the case.) In defamation actions you can still get in trouble for non-published speech that is sent only to a smaller group of people, so there would probably be some argument on this.

As to retaliation, that is a bit trickier. The NYU Policy on discrimination and harassment can be found here, and it states that it applies to all employees of the university. In regard to retaliation against a complainant, the policy states the following (emphasis added):

VI. NON-RETALIATION

The University will not in any way retaliate against an individual who reports a perceived violation of this Policy, participates in any investigation, or otherwise opposes perceived discrimination, harassment (including sexual/gender harassment), or retaliation, including as a witness. It will also not retaliate against anyone associated with the individual who engages in such protected conduct, such as a family member.

NYU further will not tolerate retaliation by any employee. Retaliation against anyone who complains of, testifies in, or assists in an investigation or proceeding involving discrimination, harassment (including sexual/gender harassment), sexual assault, or retaliation is a serious violation of this Policy, as well as federal, state, and local law. Anyone who believes they have been subjected to retaliation should report the matter immediately according to the same procedure provided in this Policy for making complaints of discrimination, harassment (including sexual/gender harassment), or sexual assault. Any person found to have retaliated against another individual will be subject to the same disciplinary action provided under this Policy for other violations.

Based on this policy, it would seem to me that there is a strong prima facie case for retaliation proceedings against any of the NYU professors who signed the letter. It explicitly accuses the complainant of maliciousness, which would imply that the complaint is false.


Note that the complainant, Nimrod Reitmann, has filed a lawsuit against Ronell and NYU in relation to this matter (see here). The article reporting the lawsuit does not mention any action for retaliation relating to the letter of support, but it would seem to me that this would be a possible cause-of-action that could be added.

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    Do they define "retaliation"? In the ordinary meaning of the term, defending someone against an attack is not retaliation. – Michael Kay Apr 7 at 22:37
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    The letter explicitly claims that the actions of Mr Reitmann are malicious - that is not mere "defence" against an "attack" (the latter being the complaint itself). – Ben Apr 7 at 23:26
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    Well, I've no idea what the law would say, but to me, questioning the motives of the person making an allegation is a reasonable part of the defence; retaliation would be threatening to strip them of their degree, for example. – Michael Kay Apr 8 at 10:09
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It has potential for defamation, because the complainant(s) or their activities were twice labelled "malicious." The actual merits of the case would depend on too many facts that are not present in the post.

The letter by itself probably does not have potential for retaliation, because the authors do not seem to be in a position to effectuate any retaliatory conduct.

Anyone interested in pursuing or avoiding a legal claim should consult a lawyer, though. No post or comment, regardless of how knowledgeable, can convey sufficient information to be relied upon for something that consequential.

  • "The authors do not seem to be in a position to effectuate any retaliatory conduct." If they are professors at the same university, especially if they have this student in their own classes (or have oversight over relevant student organizations, residence halls, etc.), that may not be true. – WBT Jul 10 at 13:50

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