A Wesleyan University professor is suing the school for allegedly failing to intervene when students posted flyers, starting in 2016, that imply he is a sexual predator.
Wesleyan, a small liberal arts college in central Connecticut, is well known for its students’ activism. But Professor Michael McAlear alleges that activism crossed into harassment and libel, and that Wesleyan didn’t do enough to stop it.
McAlear, an associate professor of molecular biology and biochemistry who has worked at Wesleyan for 24 years, is suing for breach of contract and defamation, among other counts.
Wesleyan denies all allegations in the suit and plans to “vigorously defend itself,” according to Lauren Rubenstein, the school’s director of media and public relations. She declined to discuss the case further, citing a university policy against commenting on ongoing litigation.
In the summer of 2016, Wesleyan fired Associate Dean of Students Scott Backer due to allegations of sexual misconduct with a student when Backer worked at another school. During his tenure at Wesleyan, Backer had adjudicated cases of sexual violence under Title IX, a federal prohibition on sex-based discrimination in universities. Allegations of mismanagement during his hiring and firing spurred protests that fall, as students disrupted events and called for the resignations of other administrators.
In November of that year, some students posted flyers that read “Reject Sexual Predators Emboldened by Institutional Power” over the photos and names of McAlear and two other professors. One of the other named professors did not respond to a request for comment for this story; the third has passed away.
McAlear says that Wesleyan administrators have repeatedly told him that no students have filed allegations of sexual misconduct against him. He believes he was tagged as a sexual predator because he confronted student protestors who were calling several faculty members and administrators “sexual predators and promoters of sexual violence.” He told them that their demonstration was “over-the-line and slanderous,” according to his legal filing. Five days later, McAlear’s face began appearing on the posters.
“This harassment campaign continued and escalated over the next year and a half,” McAlear said in an interview with NECIR. “Multiple postings around campus, online, teaching evaluations, handing out flyers … calling me a sexual predator, spreading malicious, untrue lies.”
Images of the flyer were also posted on a student-run blog with an accompanying post, making the allegation that McAlear is a sexual predator searchable online.
“I’ve done many things in my life, many good things in my life, but now if you were to Google me, you will see this article,” McAlear said.
“I have chosen to live and raise my children here on campus over the last 24 years; this is my home and my community as well as my work,” he wrote in a subsequent email to NECIR. “People see the posts, but they don’t know that they are vicious lies. Some have asked me ‘What did you do?’”
McAlear’s lawsuit cites a section of the Wesleyan faculty handbook, which provides that members of the Wesleyan community have “the right to be protected against actions that may be harmful to the health or emotional stability of the individual or that degrade the individual or infringe upon his/her personal dignity.”
“That postering campaign, the handing out the flyers, the online blog, the teaching evaluation: all of those actions violate those rights,” McAlear said. “They are degrading and they infringe upon my personal dignity, so I’m maintaining that those actions, the postering campaign of the students, violate that right.”
While it is not publicly known who participated in the poster campaign, McAlear writes in his filing that at least one student admitted to members of the administration that they had distributed flyers, which he did not learn until several months later. Wesleyan employees took down the flyers, according to McAlear, but did not do enough to prevent them from circulating in the first place.
Lynn Pasquerella, the president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, says the case raises questions about when, and if, a school must answer for the actions of its students.
“If we are held responsible every time someone exercises speech … or if we can be held responsible for libel for the acts of individuals over which we have no control, then it puts the academy itself at risk,” Pasquerella said. “There have been a number of cases where students have stood up and protested faculty both inside and outside of the classroom. I don’t know of any cases where the institution has been held responsible for failing to protect the faculty under those circumstances.”
But students’ protests can come into conflict with a school’s need to keep hostility out of the workplace, she said.
“Private institutions, independent colleges and universities, will have protections for freedom of expression, but they’re not bound by complying with First Amendment rights,” Pasquerella said. “All colleges and universities have the obligation to create and maintain non-hostile learning environments for their students, and non-hostile work environments for faculty and staff.”
Wesleyan President Michael Roth is named in the case, along with Provost Joyce Jacobsen, for not intervening. Roth has often written about the importance of free speech, while recognizing its limits. In a September 2017 blogpost on the university’s website, he wrote, “The imperatives of freedom and safety are sometimes in conflict.... I will continue to support the right to speak out with views that may be at odds with the campus mainstream, but I will not countenance harassment.”
McAlear also argues that Wesleyan aided and abetted defamation because university resources—a printer and computer—were allegedly used to make the flyers. McAlear says administrators knew which resources were being used, citing a conversation with Associate Vice President for Facilities Joyce Topshe, and “no action was taken.” Topshe did not respond to a request for comment.
Just last week, a jury found that Oberlin College in Ohio, another school famous for its outspoken student body, is guilty of defamatory actions against a local bakery; the school supported student protests against the business for alleged racial profiling, and must now pay the bakery millions in damages. Similarly, a court would have to find Wesleyan responsible for helping defame McAlear in order to rule in his favor on the charge, Pasquerella explained.
“If allowing the student to use their resources to engage in what he’s describing as defamation was done with their knowledge or intent, that’s one take, but otherwise accessing resources that are typically accessible to a college student doesn’t necessarily imply endorsement,” she said. “The question is: what constitutes an endorsement of a particular viewpoint that’s being espoused?”
Wesleyan has yet to file an answer to McAlear’s lawsuit.
Hannah Reale is an intern for the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news center based at Boston University and WGBH News.