A Latino civil rights group has filed a federal lawsuit against the Maricopa Community Colleges over racially charged messages a professor has posted on the campus computer system.
The class action suit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Phoenix on behalf of several Latino faculty members at Glendale Community College, accuses officials of doing nothing to stop Walter Kehowski from using the computer to send discriminatory messages and to create a Web site with links to White supremacist sites.
“The e-mails transmitted by Mr. Kehowski have, among other things, denounced ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘d-d-d-diversity’ and encouraged recipients to acknowledge and celebrate the superiority of Western Civilization,” the lawsuit claims. “These e-mails also contained excerpts from and links to articles denigrating Latinos, immigrants and many other minority groups, with titles such as ‘California’s Being Invaded, Too—By Hispanic Holidays.’ “
But college administrators say Kehowski has not violated any school rules and they say his right to use the computer is protected.
“The same freedoms that allow faculty members to voice opposition to this and allow students to have protests are the same laws that protect faculty members and allow (Kehowski) to have his opinion,” said Chris Chesrown, spokeswoman for the community colleges. “The college environment is indeed supposed to be a marketplace of ideas. Some of those ideas will not be ideas that everyone adheres to.”
Kehowski did not return calls or e-mails Friday.
But members of the Los Angeles-based Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund say the professor’s e-mails and Web site have negatively affected nearly 280,000 students and faculty members at the district’s 10 campuses.
“Plaintiffs, students and other employees complained directly to (college) officials,” according to the suit, which describes Kehowski’s computer transmissions as racially disparaging, abusive, threatening and hostile.
Since the e-mails surfaced a year ago, some students and Latino groups have called for the college to discipline Kehowski. Last month, students and educators staged a demonstration against what they call “discrimination and hate.”
In May, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigated a complaint filed by college employees and issued a letter of determination. The commission said the school should work with angry employees to resolve the situation, but a determination finding typically means investigators had reasonable cause to believe discrimination occurred.
“The federal government did an independent investigation and the government concluded that the college had an illegally hostile work environment,” said Victor Viramontes, Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund lawyer. “Employers have a responsibility to keep employees free of a hostile work environment.”
Viramontes wants the court to force the school to take action. He is also seeking unspecified monetary damages.
“We want the court to enjoin Kehowski and other employees from disseminating these intimidating and racist e-mails and maintaining racist and intimidating Web pages on the college’s computer,” he said. “The federal government has already notified the college that there is a serious problem here and the college chose to ignore it.”
Chesrown says Maricopa Community Colleges has not ignored the issue. Chancellor Rufus Glasper has called for a committee to review college computer policies.
Some of the committee’s initial recommendations would likely have made Kehowski’s computer use a violation of policy, Chesrown said.
“The district is very committed to the diversity of voices,” she said.