Civil rights

Private club parole-based expulsion does not violate Massachusetts civil rights law

According to yesterday’s report and recommendation of Magistrate Judge Donald Cabell (D. Mass.) in Koppel v. Moses:

[According to the Complaint,] Koppel and Moses were at one time friends and fellow graduate students at MIT. Both belonged to a student-run computer club called the Student Information Processing Board (“SIPB”), of which Moses was president at all times.

On February 10, 2020, a SIPB “keyholder” member said in a meeting “that Koppel should not be named keyholder because he had made a political comment in a chat room the previous September, stating something that [this individual] hated.” {A Keyholder in the SIPB is a member recognized for significant participation and contribution to the SIPB. Keyholders are nominated and elected by existing Keyholders. Keyholder status is desirable because it allows to be elected to the executive committee and other positions of responsibility Koppel had been working to obtain the status of keyholder since 2018.} Therefore, on February 27, 2020, Moses told Koppel that he “was expelled” of the SIPB because his public political statements had made some members of the SIPB “uncomfortable”.

Moses sent an email the same day to a group of approximately 140 SIPB keyholders for at least the previous twenty years and in it stated that Koppel was being fired from the SIPB on grounds of sexual harassment. Then, on March 2, 2020, Moses sent another email to a larger distribution list of 500-700 people affiliated with SIPB, stating that Koppel had made many keyholders “deeply uncomfortable” and for this reason had been requested to no longer participate in SIPB activities.

Koppel sued for defamation and violation of the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, which reads (bullets added and combining the two relevant provisions):

  • Whenever a person or persons, whether or not acting under cover of the law,
  • interfere [or attempt to interfere] by threat, intimidation or coercion, …
  • with the exercise or enjoyment by any other person or persons of rights guaranteed by the Constitution or the laws of the United States [or Massachusetts]…
  • any person whose exercise or enjoyment of rights … has been hindered or has attempted to be hindered, …
  • can [sue] for injunction [relief, and] … compensatory damages … [and] reasonable court costs and attorneys’ fees….

Moses moved to dismiss the MCRA complaint (the motion did not address the defamation claim), and the magistrate judge recommended that the district court effectively dismiss it:

Koppel here argues that Moïse defamed him and had him expelled from the SIPB “to punish and intimidate him” for his speech, and that conduct in turn interfered with Koppel’s right to engage in speech. protected, because it led him to exercise “near-total autonomy-censorship” and “disrupt[ed] his freedom of speech and his ability to engage in associations for a protected activity. As apparent examples, Koppel alleges that he hesitated to “like” a “slightly political statement from a friend on social media” and “declined an invitation to appear.” on Fox News Ingraham’s Angle talk about a matter of public interest.” Koppel argues that Moses’ conduct could be seen as either a threat or an act of intimidation or coercion….

[But] the complaint (as framed) does not allege sufficient facts to demonstrate threat, intimidation or coercion within the meaning of the MRCA, and also fails to allege facts showing that the natural effect of the conduct of the defendant was to interfere with the right of the plaintiff to then engage in the activities of protected expression referenced.

To begin with, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) defined the terms “threat,” “intimidation,” or “coercion” for purposes of the MCRA. A “threat” “involves the intentional exertion of pressure to cause fear or apprehension of injury or harm to another person;” “intimidation” is putting someone “in fear for the purpose of coercing or deterring conduct”; and “coercion” involves “the application to another of such force, physical or moral, as to compel him to do against his will something which he would not otherwise have done”. It is inherent in all three allowable actions that the conduct must compel the plaintiff to do something he is not legally required to do or refrain from doing something he is entitled to do.

Applied here, the complaint does not state a threat because it contains no allegation that Moïse pressured Koppel to make Koppel “fearful or worried.” injury or harmor that Koppel ever feared harm or harm. In this regard, the SJC pointed out that a threat-based MCRA claim will almost always require proof of a potential physical confrontation. Since the Complaint makes no such allegation and, instead, states that Moses never used physical force in his dealings with Koppel, it follows that it does not adequately assert a threat under of the law.

With respect to intimidation, the complaint is also insufficient because it fails to allege facts suggesting that Moses sought to scare Koppel to dissuade him from engaging in any conduct. Koppel argues that Moses wished to “punish and intimidate him”, but he argues in particular that the punishment was for things Koppel had previously said, that is, for his past conduct. This matters because a putative MCRA plaintiff must demonstrate that a defendant acted to prevent the plaintiff from exercising protected speech rights in the future, not simply to retaliate against him for prior statements.

Finally, the complaint for similar reasons does not allege that Moses coerced Koppel within the meaning of the MCRA. Koppel alleges that Moïse smeared him and got him expelled from the SIPB in retaliation for his previous speech, but notably does not allege that Moïse acted to dissuade Koppel from subsequently engaging in similar conduct with anyone or any entity on or off the MIT campus. In sum, even attributing the truth of the complaint’s allegations, i.e. even assuming that Moses “punished” Koppel for prior statements that Koppel had made by making defamatory comments about Koppel and making expel from the SIPB, such conduct does not constitute a threat or an act of intimidation or coercion within the meaning of the MRCA.

More, even assuming argue Moses’ conduct was deemed sufficient to constitute one of the three required acts, the complaint would still not state a valid MCRA claim as it does not allege facts showing that the “natural effect” of Moses’ conduct was to interfere with Koppel’s ability to engage in certain protected speech as alleged. In this regard, the complaint simply goes too far.

It might be reasonable to believe that someone in Koppel’s position, after being criticized and expelled from a student organization for verbal harassment, might be somewhat reluctant for a time to engage in certain activities. at MIT, but the complaint here far more broadly alleges that the effect of Moses’ conduct was to cause Koppel to exercise “near total self-censorship” with respect to activities far beyond the college campus or community, to such a degree that he was hesitant to “like” a “slightly political” social media post or appear on a national TV show. It is not apparent to this court that Moses’ conduct could naturally cause Koppel to withdraw from social life outside of MIT to the extent he claims, and the complaint asserts no additional or specific facts to plausible way to see Koppel’s reaction as anything other than an overreaction. Absent additional facts that might help view Koppel’s harsh reaction as a natural consequence of his expulsion from the SIPB, the MCRA’s claim in this court is too tense to proceed.

{In light of the court’s finding, it is unnecessary to consider Moses’ further argument that Koppel’s expulsion from the SIPB was not serious enough to support an MCRA claim.}