Education

Linked in TV report to 'antifa,' ousted professor says Kirkwood violated his rights

Jeff Klinzman says he's not part of any 'antifa' organization but stands against fascism

(FILE PHOTO) Jeff Klinzman, photographed Tuesday, July 29, 2014, in Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
(FILE PHOTO) Jeff Klinzman, photographed Tuesday, July 29, 2014, in Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

By Vanessa Miller, The Gazette

CEDAR RAPIDS — When Jeff Klinzman’s phone rang Friday and he saw the familiar Kirkwood Community College number, he knew what was coming. He’d been dreading it.

Just a day earlier, while still a Kirkwood adjunct professor, Klinzman was the focus of a KCRG-TV report sparked by a tip about his provocative online rhetoric. The story, for which he had declined to comment on camera, reported Klinzman claimed affiliation with the left-wing “antifa” movement.

The story quickly spread nationally through social media and other outlets, landing on a variety of right-wing websites and eventually on Fox News.

“I won’t say I was surprised,” Klinzman, 62, told The Gazette about the call. “They talked about how this had broken on Fox and they were getting thousands of complaints. They were getting threats. People were threatening to burn down the college. They said, ‘We can’t have you coming back this semester.’”

Kirkwood President Lori Sundberg confirmed that account Tuesday, telling The Gazette her decision to remove Klinzman from the three-credit composition course he planned to teach this fall was based on threats to the college resulting from Klinzman’s comments and their publicity.

“As of Thursday of last week, he was going to be teaching Monday, and we were well aware of the content,” Sundberg said. “There is no evidence that he has espoused those views in his class. But then once the news story ran and we had this outcry from the public and what we perceived as threats — at the end of the day for me, if I’m found legally wrong on this, I can live with that. But if I make a wrong decision regarding the safety of the students, and he’s harmed, our students are harmed, or other faculty are harmed, I can’t live with that.”

The issue of free speech at public universities and colleges like Kirkwood — and the First Amendment values they champion — has fired up communities from coast to coast as the country’s political divides widen and rhetoric morphs into action and occasionally violence.

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Incidents like this increasingly raise the question of what constitutes speech-related harm that’s not protected by the Constitution.

“These are the tough decisions that people have to make today — it’s a complicated issue,” Sundberg said. “We were trying most definitely to respect his right to free speech. At the same time, I have to respect that I have students’ lives on my campus that I’m responsible for.”

Klinzman said he believes his case amounts to a First Amendment violation and he plans to sue Kirkwood, which he said not only replaced him in the classroom but asked him to resign as adjunct professor in the English Department, where he has worked since 2010.

“They made it clear — you can resign or we’ll terminate you,” he said.

Klinzman said he agreed to quit when Kirkwood committed to pay him for the fall section he planned to teach.

Sundberg confirmed the college is paying Klinzman for the semester work he no longer will be doing — $3,624 over the 16-week period.

But she rejected the assertion he was asked to quit, and produced the email he sent to Kirkwood’s human resources at 2:05 p.m. Friday.

“Due to the controversy surrounding reporting about my activism, and in the interest of preserving the safety of the Kirkwood campus, its students, faculty, and staff, I resign my position as a member of the English faculty effective immediately,” according to the one-sentence email.

‘A cover story’

Klinzman’s vociferous rhetoric and outlandish online modus operandi is nothing new. He has been voicing strong opinions for years in letters to the editor, in comments to online news articles and in spats on social media.

Those brought to light recently include one from 2012 in which he disparaged Christians, suggesting violence, and another more current post in which he responded to President Donald Trump’s criticism of the anti-fascist group “antifa” as “radical left whack jobs who go around hitting … people over the heads with baseball bats.” Klinzman remarked: “Yeah, I know who I’d clock with a bat.”

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Kirkwood officials said they got an anonymous tip about Klinzman’s online comments in early August and reached out to him with questions — but planned to let him continue teaching.

Sundberg, who started as Kirkwood’s president only a year ago, said she knew nothing of Klinzman’s virtual persona before that tip.

But Klinzman said a Kirkwood official contacted him years ago following a report of an inflammatory sexual reference he made during an argument on Facebook. Kirkwood took no action following that incident, he said.

When KCRG reached out to Kirkwood earlier this month about the story it was preparing, however, administrators contacted Klinzman with concerns, he said. Kirkwood human resources Vice President Wes Fowler wanted to know what to expect from the story, according to Klinzman.

That conversation and others left Klinzman suspicious of Kirkwood’s motives in removing him from the classroom.

“Let’s just say that Wes Fowler made statements that lead me to believe that the statement of student safety is a cover story,” he said.

Klinzman said Fowler expressed concerns with how Christian students might feel in his class. That, according to Klinzman, revealed the college’s concern with the content of his commentary. Fowler also referenced calls from lawmakers after Thursday’s TV coverage, raising flags for Klinzman about political motives.

Sundberg confirmed at least two state lawmakers reached out seeking information — Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Marion, and Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison. Those contacts came amid a barrage of emails and calls from the public, including veiled and explicit threats of violence that could test Kirkwood’s ability to provide a space conducive to learning, said Jon Buse, vice president for student services.

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“We had some messages that I can recall were disturbing, concerning and alarming,” Buse said. “Things that we feel like we need to follow up on and take seriously.”

It ‘really escalated’

Even with Klinzman off campus for the start of classes Monday, Kirkwood worked with Cedar Rapids police to have additional officers present.

Buse and a colleague visited the class Klinzman was to teach to explain the situation.

And the administration plans to extend its extra security measures and precautions into the foreseeable future.

Klinzman, who was doing chores at a stable where he volunteers when the story aired, said he returned home to find his wife had left out of fear. He, too, has called authorities to request extra presence in his neighborhood, all for comments he said were taken out of context.

He said he’s not affiliated with any organized version of antifa, but rather stands against fascism — a right-wing authoritarian political philosophy.

“The situation really escalated and changed dramatically and very rapidly,” he said.

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