Speech-Based Expulsion from Private Club Doesn’t Violate Massachusetts Civil Rights Act

Today’s Report-and-Recommendation of Magistrate Judge Donald Cabell, (D. Mass.) Mass.) Koppel v. Moses:

[According to the Complaint,]Koppel and Moses were once friends, and fellow MIT graduate student. Moses served as the chair of the Student Information Processing Board (SIPB), a student-run club in computer science called which Moses belonged.

One member of SIPB, “keyholder”, stated on February 10, 2020 that Koppel was not to be named keyholder after he made a comment about politics in the chatroom in September. [this individual] disliked.” {Keyholders in SIPB are members who have made substantial contributions to SIPB. Existing keyholders nominate and elect keyholders. The keyholder status allows you to vote on the executive committee as well as other responsible positions. Koppel had been working toward keyholder status since 2018.}  Koppel was working toward keyholder status from 2018.

Moses also sent an email that day to 140 SIPB keyholders, indicating in it that Koppel had been removed from SIPB due to sexual harassment.  Moses then sent an email on March 2, 2020 to another distribution list, which included between 700 and 500 SIPB-affiliated people. He stated that Koppel had caused many keyholders to feel “deeply uneasy” and that they were being asked to stop participating in SIPB activities.

Koppel was sued for defamation as well as for violating the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act. It reads: (bullets added and combining both relevant provisions)

  • Any person, or group of persons acting under the color or law.
  • Interfere [or attempt to interfere] by threats, intimidation or coercion, …
  • Any other person may enjoy the Constitution or Laws of the United States rights. [or Massachusetts], …
  • any person whose exercise or enjoyment of rights … has been interfered with, or attempted to be interfered with, …
  • May [sue] for injunctive [relief, and] … compensatory money damages … [and] the costs of the litigation and reasonable attorneys’ fees ….

Moses sought to dismiss the MCRA case (the motion was not related to the defamation claims), and the Magistrate judge recommended that it be dismissed by the District Court:

Koppel believes that Moses defamed Moses, had him taken from SIPB “to penalize and intimidate” his speech. Koppel’s right not to engage in protected expression was impeded by this behavior, which caused Koppel to practice “near total self-censorship and disruption.”[ed]His freedom of speech and ability to participate in protected activities. Koppel cites as examples that he hesitated to “like” a “slightly controversial statement from a friend on Facebook” and refused an invitation on Fox News. The Ingraham Angle “To speak of a matter that is in the public interest.” Koppel contends that Moses’ conduct could be viewed as either a threat or an act of intimidation or coercion….

[But]The complaint as it stands does not allege enough facts to prove a threat or intimidation. It also fails to claim facts that show the defendant’s natural effects on the plaintiff’s rights to engage in protected speech activities.

For the purposes of the MCRA, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has established the following definitions: “Threat,” intimidation,” and “coercion”. The definitions of “threat” and “intimidation” are as follows: “Threat” refers to the deliberate exertion or pressure to make someone fearful, or anxious about injury or harm. “Coercion” is the application of force to another person to contravene his will. All three of these qualifying actions require that plaintiff’s conduct compels him to act in a way that is contrary to his rights.

The complaint does not allege any threat, as it doesn’t allege that Moses pressured Koppel to make him “fearful” or apprehensive. Injury or harmKoppel was ever afraid of being hurt or inflicted with injury. The SJC stressed in this context that any MCRA claim made based upon a threat must almost always be supported by evidence of the possibility. Physical confrontation. The complaint does not make such claims and, instead, indicates that Moses never used physical force to deal with Koppel. Therefore, the complaint fails to properly assert a threat as required by the statute.

The complaint regarding intimidation also fails because it doesn’t allege any facts that Moses wanted to put Koppel under fear in order to discourage him from participating in any behavior. Koppel claims that Moses wanted to punish and intimidate him. However, he also asserts that the punishment was for past statements, that is for Koppel’s conduct. Because a plaintiff in MCRA must prove that the defendant prevented the plaintiff exercising his protected speech rights in future, and not to retaliate for past statements.

The complaint for similar purposes does not allege that Moses forced Koppel to do something contrary to the MCRA. Koppel claims that Moses smeared Koppel and removed him from SIPB as a retaliation to his previous speech. However, Koppel does not claim that Moses acted in preventing Koppel from engaging in similar behavior with any other person or entity on or off the MIT campus. Even if the allegations in the complaint are true and Koppel was expelled from SIPB for making defamatory remarks about Koppel, this conduct does not constitute intimidation, coercion, or threat within the MCRA.

More, even assuming arguendo Even if Moses’ conduct could be considered sufficient to satisfy the three requirements, the claim would not make a valid MCRA case because it does not allege any facts showing that Moses’ behavior interfered with Koppel’s freedom to express protected speech. The complaint is simply too broad in this respect.

Koppel could be in a position where he or she is hesitant for some time after being expelled verbally harassed by a student group. MITBut the complaint claims more generally that Moses’ actions caused Koppel “near-total selfcensorship” regarding activities that went beyond university campuses and communities. Koppel was afraid to “like” a “slightly controversial” social media post or make an appearance on a national television program. Koppel did not withdraw from MIT social life in the way that he claims. This is because the court cannot find any other facts which would support the claim. Koppel’s severe reaction, which he claimed was a result of SIPB removal, cannot be seen by this court as an actual fact.

{In light of the court’s conclusion, it is not necessary to consider Moses’ additional argument that Koppel’s expulsion from SIPB was not serious enough to support a MCRA claim.}