A New York University trustee has found a way to chill speech critical of him and the companies he owns: subpoena the personal emails of two particularly outspoken opponents.
A New York University Law trustee's company wants two students to hand over their personal emails after they circulated a letter criticizing him, according to a subpoena.
The law students, second-year Luke Herrine and first-year Leo Gertner, were targeted after they helped circulate a letter denouncing NYU Law School trustee Daniel Straus, who owns Care One Management, a home health aide and nursing home company embroiled in a labor dispute.
The two students started a petition asking for the removal of Straus
from the Board of Trustees, pointing out that a law school should probably be associated with someone who respects the law, something Straus' companies seem to have trouble doing. His two companies, CareOne and HealthBridge Management, have been cited at least 38 times by the National Labor Relations Board for violating federal labor laws. In addition, HealthBridge was held in contempt of court for refusing to allow 600 workers to return to their jobs at their pre-strike pay levels.
CareOne's current legal battle with a local labor union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), something that has dragged on for years at this point, has seemingly turned into a convenient way for Straus to get back at his critics
. Of course, CareOne claims otherwise.
CareOne spokesperson Deborah Maxson said the deadline for the requested information is April 25.
“Straus is not a party to the lawsuit and is not managing the litigation,” Maxson said.
Straus may not be a party to this lawsuit, but these are his companies, and there can be very little doubt that Straus would prefer the ongoing criticism of his business efforts be halted. If CareOne wants to use the excuse that Straus isn't a "party" to this lawsuit, then it needs to extend that same courtesy to the two students, who also aren't a "party" to the ongoing legal fight.
Then there's the content sought by the subpoenas. This, too, mentions Straus directly, even as CareOne claims this has nothing to do with him. According to a letter sent by the Board of Trustees to NYU administration, this is what CareOne is hoping to obtain:
“The subpoenas requested information regarding any contact the students may have had with SEIU and any activity they may have engaged in, such as protests or meetings, relating to Mr. Straus or CareOne...”
If Straus isn't "party" to this lawsuit, why does CareOne need information relating to Straus? Beyond that, the information requested bears all the hallmarks of trying to use the power of the court to silence free speech. Protests and meetings, both activities covered by the First Amendment, are mentioned specifically by the subpoena.
For what it's worth, NYU has stepped up and has provided the students with the pro bono help of one of the school's lawyers. It also issued a very carefully-worded defense of the students, no doubt mindful of Straus' $1.25 million annual endowment.
“The Law School is not a party to the litigation between Care One and SEIU, and will remain uninvolved in it," the school wrote in a statement to DNAinfo New York sent Thursday. "We vigorously support the right of our students to express their views and to organize and participate in lawful demonstrations and other protest activity, at the same time that we acknowledge that parties to litigation are permitted, subject to applicable rules and judicial oversight, to gather evidence in support of their case."
Further statements reiterated NYU's support for its students' rights but also noted it considered Straus to be an "upright and honorable person."
That said, it seems that there is a clear -- and somewhat massive -- conflict of interest for Straus to remain on the board of trustees at NYU Law at the same time he's using the legal process to demand the email contents from two of its students.
As is noted by the students' new petition demanding the withdrawal of the subpoenas
, this sort of activity, undertaken by a "victim" of criticism, will discourage others from approaching anything remotely controversial.
Forcing students to turn over emails and other private communications in litigation that does not concern them can chill free speech on campus and make students think twice about raising their voice about controversial issues. This is antithetical to NYU's mission of open academic inquiry and commitment to the public interest.
Rather than address these concerns, Straus is allowing (or directing) his company to shut down his critics by seeking personal communications from non-party NYU students. Straus also has additional leverage with the university should this fail to keep future criticism at bay. Of course, there's always a chance NYU will side with the students and decide that Straus' companies don't really reflect the culture it's trying to instill in its students. But until this all plays out, we're just witnessing the sort of tactics deployed by entities who would rather shut people up
than address their concerns.