Anti-PC fight-back hits courts

September 22, 1995

Peter Maas is a Cornell University professor trapped, he claims, in a Kafkaesque web of political correctness. His hugs, kisses and gifts to students were twisted into a sex harassment case, tarnishing a stellar teaching reputation. It made him a perfect client for the Center for Individual Rights.

With a half-million pound budget and a very important-sounding name, for six years this conservative legal foundation has joined cause with professors and students claiming victimisation by race and gender rules gone riot. It boasts of having won all its 14 higher education cases.

The centre has thrust itself into the middle of America's sensitive debate over free speech in the classroom - and whether professors dropping sexual innuendos, hugging female students, or even using the "N-word" can create what lawyers call a "hostile working environment".

Professor Maas is the centre's latest high-profile case - it is suing Cornell, his employer of 32 years. A university committee last year ruled he had sexually harassed four female students, but he says he is the victim of a "blasphemous smear campaign".

Last year, CIR won a major law suit for Donald Silva against the University of New Hampshire. He was suspended after making remarks in class that were ruled a form of sexual harassment. The university agreed to pay $230,000 in back pay and legal fees.

The centre was set up in 1989 by Michael Greeve and Michael McDonald, who met in the milieu of conservative think tanks and lawyers' groups that operate in Washington.

Much of its budget comes from foundations known for backing conservative causes. But despite its ideological slant, its cases have drawn cautious support from left as well as right.

Its founders set out to press "the defense of free speech against egalitarian restrictions and censorship, and the promotion of government neutrality in matters of race", pursuing a conservative agenda of personal freedom and small government that could be Newt Gingrich's own.

This year the centre won a Supreme Court case on free speech grounds which will endear it to the religious right. It sued the University of Virginia on behalf of a student after the college refused funding for his monthly Christian campus magazine, Wide Awake.

But more often CIR has acted as a last resort for faculty members and students to take on institutions with much large financial resources. It laid out nearly $300,000 on the Silva case, for example. "I wouldn't be able to have a case without them because I couldn't afford it," said Professor Maas.

Often it finds itself on the side of middle-aged white men - like the five male professors suing Virginia Commonwealth University who claimed they were not included in pay rises given on demand to every female faculty member.

CIR is helping Gerald Gee, a white associate professor of journalism at the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, sue the faculty that suspended him for two weeks and later denied him tenure after he used the term "nigger mentality" in front of an all-black class.

The Maas case is typical of the kind of controversy that the CIR seeks out. Four former students claim that in incidents between 1988 and 1994 Professor Maas handed out $2,000 in gifts, including a blue cocktail dress, repeatedly hugged and kissed them, and made suggestive comments.

But the 56-year-old psychology professor refuses to admit he over-stepped the line. He says his physical contact was part of a warm and caring relationship with particular students.

He is still one of Cornell's most successful faculty members, having produced nine documentaries for American public television. His courses are perennially popular - drawing over 1,500 students this year - and in 1993 he won a $25,000 teaching award.

Professor Maas is now suing the university for Pounds 1 million, claiming he was denied due process in disciplinary hearings. The university barred him from giving expensive gifts to students and stopped a scheduled pay rise.

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