Both AFT Local 2121 and City Attorney Dennis Herrera have filed suit against the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, arguing that the panel’s decision to revoke the accreditation of City College on July 31, 2014 was unfair, the product of bias and conflicts of interest, and was done without due process. They’ve asked for an immediate injunction to halt the process and keep the school open until after a full trial can be held.
The ACCJC field a SLAPP-suit motion, asking to have the case dismissed, and attorney Phil Ward argued that the agency’s First Amendment rights were at risk. Karnow seemed a little dubious about that; “they aren’t challenging the First Amendment rights, just the decision,” he told Ward. But he wasn’t easy on union attorney Daniel Weintraub, either, asking how, if the agency’s deliberations are protected speech, and the decision arose directly from those deliberations, the union could conclude that there was no First Amendment issue.
Weintraub pointed out that the union and the city weren’t seeking any damages, just a reversal of the decision.
If Karnow grants the SLAPP motion, the case would be dismissed and the rest of the argument would be moot. He gave no indication that he was going to do that, devoting most of the day to arguing the merits of a possible injunction.
He did, however, ask the attorneys a series of questions. He noted that nobody disputes that there are some problems at City College, and suggested that the harm that has come from the closure in July is “uncertainty harm” – meaning that nobody knows if the two lawsuits will be successful. “What if we had a trial in June?” he asked. He noted that the ACCJC hasn’t disputed that its process also had serious problems. Some of those have since been fixed, the agency says, but Karnow said the problems were there during this evaluation. “The defendants say it’s been fixed, but why do I care?” he asked. “What’s the harm in stopping the process now?”
Robert Bezemek, arguing on behalf of AFT, called the July deadline “an execution date,” and argued that the accreditation team violated the due process rights of City College. “Their own policy says you have to have due process,” he noted, charging that the vote to revoke accreditation ought to be moot.
And, indeed, there’s little argument that the process was, at the very least, irregular for a quasi-judicial body. The husband of the director of the ACCJC was on the visiting panel that evaluated City College, and that team was made up almost entirely of administrators. There were, Bezemek noted, “no findings” of fact that were presented to the college and no opportunity to challenge those findings.
In essence, he argued (as I have argued in the past) that the accreditation process should focus on whether the students are getting a good education – and by any standard, City College passes that test with flying colors.
Although Ward insisted that the plaintiff’s case was made up of “conspiracies worthy of Jim Garrison” (odd – if Ward believes the Warren Commission, he’s probably the only person in America today who does), Herrera’s office points out that, in fact, there’s a serious political and policy dispute behind all of this. City College and its governing board supports the “open access” theory of community college education – the school is open to anyone who can benefit from its classes. The ACCJC supports a more restrictive policy that would limit access to City College to students who are prepared to transfer to a four-year institution. “Disturbingly, at the same time that it was publicly opposing City College’s open access vision, the ACCJC was in the midst of evaluating City College,” his brief argues.
Matt Dorsey, a spokesperson for Herrera, emailed this evening to say that nobody knows when Karnow will rule. But if he doesn’t issue an injunction, the notion that this case could go to trial by June strains credulity: With the cutbacks in court funding, and the complexities of this case (and the fact that the ACCJC has no incentive to act in a timely manner, since delay accomplishes its purpose of shuttering the school), going from a first hearing to a full trial in six months would be something of a legal record for a major civil case these days.
Meanwhile, enrollment for the spring semester ends in less than two weeks. (Full disclosure: I’m teaching a class in the Journalism Department.) If there’s an injunction against the closure, more students may decide to stick it out. If not, the bleeding is going to continue.