We’ve all heard that fact sometimes is stranger than fiction, correct? Well, hold on to your hat, dear reader, because the following facts make strange look boring.
Meet Michael Isaacson. Isaacson has at least two claims to fame. First, he is one of the founders of Smash Racism DC, a self-styled anti-fascist (“antifa”) organization in Washington, D.C. Secondly, he is an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which is a New York public college.
There need not be any conflict between Isaacson’s two pursuits. But, here’s the twist: John Jay College is a certified New York City Police Academy, and it trains “all newly hired and active members of [the New York Police Department.]”
And Isaacson, a John Jay faculty member, tweeted in late August: “Some of y’all might think it sucks being an anti-fascist teaching at John Jay College but I think it’s a privilege to teach future dead cops.”
Some of y'all might think it sucks being an anti-fascist teaching at John Jay College but I think it's a privilege to teach future dead cops— Mike Isaacson (@VulgarEconomics) August 23, 2017
So, Professor Isaacson is teaching students who, he hopes, will soon be killed on the job. That, I think, is a fact that is stranger than fiction.
Isaacson has some other ideas that are pretty unusual. He defends violence as a legitimate tool to be used against, for example, public demonstrations organized by neo-Nazis. He has said: “There is the question of whether these people should feel safe organizing as Nazis in public, and I don’t think they should.”
But, as one might guess, Isaacson’s antipathy isn’t limited to neo-Nazis. He isn’t very fond of police departments, either. “I don’t have a problem with individual police officers — I mean, I teach them — but I don’t like policing as an institution. Police officers are agents of that institution.”
Isaacson also believes there is a nefarious, secret connection between neo-Nazis and the police. He has asserted that neo-Nazis have somehow infiltrated both police departments and the military. As a result, the neo-Nazis “have them kind of on their side.” He offered no evidence at all for this claim.
Last week, John Jay College learned of Isaacson’s “future dead cops” tweet, and he was placed on administrative leave. And Bill de Blasio, NYC’s mayor, tweeted his own severe condemnation of “the vile anti-police rhetoric of Michael Isaacson.”
Not surprisingly, Isaacson immediately fired back at the mayor. He claimed that, among other things, de Blasio had “taken a swipe” at both academic freedom and free speech.
First, let’s consider academic freedom. The American Association of University Professors is the flagship organization for the protection of academic freedom. But, even the AAUP recognizes limits on that freedom. Its Statement of Principles says: “When [academics] speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations… [T]hey should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances.”
If people are judging John Jay College by Isaacson’s tweet, they’ve come to the conclusion that the college would like to have a dead student body. That cannot be good.
Moreover, Isaacson’s comments must necessarily detract from his effectiveness as an educator. If you were a policeman (as some of Isaacson’s students are), how eager would you be to be taught by someone who, you have learned, is hoping you’ll be killed at work?
So, I do not think a strong case can be made that academic freedom was violated when Isaacson was placed on administrative leave or the mayor condemned his tweet.
But Isaacson’s claim that his free speech rights under the First Amendment have been violated is really the one that takes the biscuit.
Just savor the irony: Isaacson, as a member of the antifa, believes that neo-Nazis and others of whom he disapproves have no rights under the First Amendment; he thinks their speech can properly be squelched by violent means. And yet Isaacson’s own free speech rights are somehow heinously violated if the mayor tweets his disapproval of his “future dead cops” comment.
If a member of antifa were to punch a neo-Nazi in the head to prevent him from publicly speaking or demonstrating: no First Amendment violation. Mayor de Blasio criticizes Isaacson’s “future dead cops” tweet: First Amendment violation. That’s Isaacson’s position.
To be fair, as a person who is lucky enough to be in the United States, Isaacson certainly does have a First Amendment right to say virtually anything he wants. If he wants to continue to express his hope that cops will be killed on the job, he is free to do that. No public institution, including John Jay College, can stop him from expressing that hope.
But, John Jay College is in the business of educating its students, and most of its students are either police officers or other public-safety professionals. John Jay of course wants to have a faculty that can educate its students effectively. In evaluating its faculty, it is reasonable and fair for John Jay to review scandalous or provocative ideas they have aired in public.
Michael Isaacson has, in effect, disqualified himself from any faculty position at a school like John Jay. In putting him on administrative leave, and ultimately (I am predicting) terminating him, the college will not have punished Isaacson for his speech. Rather, the college will have reached the obviously correct conclusion that he can no longer be an effective teacher of their student body.
I’m trying to feel sorry for Isaacson (it’s never a happy event when someone loses a job), but it’s not easy.
David E. Weisberg is an attorney and a member of the New York State bar. His scholarly papers on constitutional law are published on the Social Science Research Network.