Tufts University is postponing a talk by Anthony Scaramucci, who was briefly a spokesman for President Donald Trump, after he threatened to sue a student who wrote an unflattering opinion piece about him in the student newspaper.
An attorney retained by Scaramucci, Samuel Lieberman, sent a letter to the graduate student who wrote the opinion piece and to the editor in chief of the Tufts Daily. The letter explained that Lieberman's firm had been retained to "pursue claims arising from blatantly false and defamatory statements," and demanding a retraction of certain statements and an apology. The letter was published by the Boston Globe.
The news sparked an online debate about freedom of speech and freedom of the press on college campuses.
Lieberman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday. In the letter, he cited a case in which even statements that contained some amount of opinion were found to be defamatory when they claimed a public official had been unethical, and wrote that Scaramucci "has never been charged nor found to have committed any ethical violation ..."
A spokesman for Tufts, Patrick Collins, said in a written statement Monday that the Boston-area school is disappointed by Scaramucci's action.
This fall, more than 200 students signed a petition arguing Scaramucci is not qualified to serve on the Board of Advisors for the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts.
"The university has been working to facilitate a conversation that had been scheduled for Monday evening between Fletcher School students and Mr. Scaramucci about his background, experience and the petition calling for his removal from the Fletcher School Board of Advisors," Collins said.
"In light of recent developments, we are postponing the event until these pending legal matters are resolved."
Scaramucci, a 1986 graduate of the university, was appointed to a five-year term on the board in 2016. The university has 10 such boards, which have no fiduciary responsibility or other authority, Collins said, but offer advice to deans and center directors based on discussions among the members.
Scaramucci did not respond immediately to a request for comment Monday, but he responded publicly on Twitter, saying, "All I need is an apology and correction. Get the facts right. Defamation is not unflattering coverage. It's defamation."
He also wrote, "I asked for an apology. Plain and simple. In our country defamation comes with its consequences."
The Fletcher student who created the petition seeking the removal of Scaramucci, Carter Banker, said she had been concerned about Scaramucci's role after his controversial stint as spokesman for Trump, which ended abruptly after a vulgar tirade in an interview with the New Yorker was published this summer.
But Banker said she was spurred to action when she saw his publication, the Scaramucci Post, share a poll on social media this fall about how many Jewish people were killed in the Holocaust. She said the publication later apologized, but in her opinion, it was another example of his questionable judgment.
In the petition, signed by about 240 Fletcher students, alumni and faculty members, Banker argued her belief that "his very public, embarrassing conduct reflects poorly on our institution," and she questioned how valuable his advice could be to the school.
In the letter, Lieberman wrote that the poll was posted without Scaramucci's consent by an employee who is Jewish, who apologized and who explained it had been intended to highlight ignorance about the Holocaust.
Earlier this month, a Fletcher student, Camilo Caballero, wrote two opinion pieces arguing that Scaramucci was unfit for the post on the Fletcher School board.
"A man who is irresponsible, inconsistent, an unethical opportunist and who exuded the highest degree of disreputability should not be on the Fletcher Board," Caballero wrote in the Tufts Daily.
"... If his credentials lie in the billions of dollars he made on Wall Street, then we have, as a school, abandoned our principles and vision," Caballero wrote.
Banker said she was in class not long after the opinion pieces were published when she was startled to receive an email from Scaramucci, asking to be invited to campus. She said she spoke with administrators, and they agreed to host a moderated discussion between Scaramucci and the Fletcher student body.
She said the letter to Caballero and Gil Jacobson, the editor in chief of the Tufts Daily, initially shocked her, but then she felt it was illustrative of Scaramucci's character. "It's purely an intimidation tactic. ... He's doing this to shut people up," Banker said.
Caballero directed questions to his attorney, Matthew Segal. Segal did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday morning.
Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said the group offered to help.
"Sending a graduate student a letter accusing him of something two days before Thanksgiving and demanding a response within five days is clearly mean-spirited," Rose said. "The ACLU of Massachusetts is not going to allow Mr. Caballero or anyone who's a journalist to be bullied into silence. There's a long history in this country of trying to use defamation law to silence critics."
Frederick Lawrence, the secretary and CEO of the Phi Beta Kappa society, who is a lecturer at Georgetown Law, said, "The Supreme Court has said when a public figure is involved, defamation requires that the reporting was done with knowledge of falsehood or reckless disregard for the truth. The burden of proof for a plaintiff who is a public figure in a defamation suit is very, very stiff."
The First Amendment standard was intended to give breathing space for the press to explore controversial ideas and to write about public figures without self-censoring, he said, as long as reporters are operating with a reasonable belief in the truth of what they are writing.
"It's really most unfortunate," Lawrence said. "This is the essence of a free press and the essence of a university campus where students are engaged in free and robust debate."
Jacobson, the editor in chief of the Tufts Daily, said he almost immediately consulted with a lawyer at the Student Press Law Center when he received the email from Scaramucci's lawyer Tuesday. "With anything that we publish, as a student newspaper with a fairly wide readership," including the surrounding community off campus, "we have to be prepared for all extremes to happen."
The paper published a story Monday that stated that the paper had received the letter, which it published in full, and that the editorials remain on the paper's website with the original text.
"Mr. Scaramucci's threat to sue a graduate student and a college newspaper over an op-ed would be purely frivolous if it weren't also so menacing," Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America wrote. "The First Amendment clearly and fully protects the expression of personal opinion. This is nothing more than a heavy-handed attempt to bully them into printing an apology, and to scare other critics into silence. Good for Mr. Caballero and for the Tufts Daily for standing firm."
The Washington Post's Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.