A Fresno State lecturer’s Tweet that President Donald Trump “must hang” has led to an investigation by the Secret Service, and people are debating how serious an offense it is and what should be done.
There are two camps: those who think Lars Maischak’s social media commentary that said in order to save democracy, Trump should hang – “the sooner and the higher, the better” – is grounds for termination, and that Fresno State President Joseph Castro owes that to the community. The other side says that Maischak has the right to free speech, and that his Tweets should not be taken so seriously.
Maischak has since apologized and deleted his Twitter account, saying he does not condone violence against Trump. The university has canceled his classes planned for Monday and Tuesday, and said more information will be released Tuesday.
But questions remain. Here are some answers:
What are the consequences for threatening the president? No surprise here: The Secret Service is secretive. It hasn’t returned phone calls or emails from The Bee. But according to federal law, threatening the president of the United States is a class E felony, which means more than one year but less than five years in prison, and a maximum fine of $250,000.
Threats that are “knowingly and willfully” made will be investigated by the Secret Service. During Trump’s first few weeks in office, more than 12,000 Tweets blatantly called for his assassination but it’s hard to say how many warranted a serious investigation.
A Florida man was arrested in December for posting a picture of Trump to Facebook and saying he had “good use” for a gun. Snoop Dogg, however, did not face consequences for a music video released in November, in which he shoots a clown that resembles Trump with a toy gun.
Trump said on Twitter that had the rapper made the same video about President Barack Obama, he would have faced jail time. (Of note: Secret Service protection was expanded for Obama due to assassination concerns. He was receiving more than 30 death threats a day, according to one report.)
Can immigrants be deported for threatening the president? Yes. In March, an Egyptian student who was living in California had his student visa canceled after posting to Facebook that he would “do the whole world a favor” and kill Trump. The 23-year-old agreed to leave the U.S. – escorted by federal agents – after the Secret Service investigated his social media posts.
The Immigration and Nationality Act lays out several reasons a non-citizen may be deported to their country of origin. One reason is conspiring to commit sedition or treason: betraying the U.S. or calling for revolt against the president.
Maischak’s critics have pointed out that he was not born in the U.S., and immigrated here from Germany.
What is Fresno State’s policy regarding free speech for instructors? From Fresno State’s free expression policy, which applies to students, faculty and staff: “Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of a democratic society and is essential to the educational process. Universities have a special obligation not only to allow but also to encourage and support the free expression of ideas, values and opinions, even where they may be unpopular or controversial.”
While the policy says that Fresno State will ensure that students and employees are given “a wide latitude” when it comes to free speech, it’s not an absolute right if that expression interferes with public safety.
According to the American Association of University Professors, instructors have a right to speak or write as citizens, free from institutional censorship or discipline, but they also have “special obligations” because of their position.
Henry Reichman, AAUP’s vice president, says that an instructor should only be disciplined for questionable free speech if it directly relates to their fitness to do their job.
“We don’t believe that (Maischak) should be punished for this – certainly not by the university,” Reichman said. “That’s inappropriate, and really, it’s a violation of his academic freedom. We generally believe that professors should have the right to speak on any issue.”
What’s the difference between a lecturer and a professor? And is a lecturer easier to fire? Lecturers are essentially temporary faculty. They get a contract with a university to teach a certain amount of courses, typically between one and three years. While they don’t have the same protections as tenured professors, they do have a union: the California Faculty Association.
Maischak’s contract is valid through May 2018, paying him $60,612 annually. The university has chosen several times to renew his contract since he was first hired in 2006. That could mean Fresno State might have a hard time defending any potential termination.
“It’s hard to fire someone midstream, regardless. Tenured people obviously have the greatest job security, but everyone has rights to complete whatever work they are contracted to do under the terms of their contract,” said CFA spokeswoman Alice Sunshine. “It would be much simpler for management to not renew a contract when it ends than it would be to fire someone. We would expect for the campus to honor the faculty contract.”
Sunshine would not say if CFA is representing Maischak or release details about his case.
Should Maischak be fired? According to more than 1,000 people who signed a petition, yes. Sharon Keys of Modesto says, “This is hate speech and should not be tolerated.”
Lisa Tietjen of Fresno says: “I am appalled that this professor is so lacking in judgment. Heaven only knows what he’s saying in the classroom. I will definitely keep all this in mind the next time I’m asked to donate to my alma mater.”
But others, including fee speech and university faculty advocates, say he should not be fired. Mike Topjian of Fresno says: “An election changes free speech to not-so-free speech. Deplorable and quite worrisome. … The darkest days of America have been those when freedom of speech has been hampered.”
John David Dix of Fresno says: “I hear people say, ‘I’m gonna kill him’ all the time. Get over it.”
Correction: This story originally said all of Maischak’s classes were cancelled for the week of April 17. His sessions on Wednesday and Friday were not cancelled, university officials said.