Greg Manco, a former St. Joseph’s University professor subjected to a conduct investigation but later let go by the university, filed a federal lawsuit Friday alleging defamation, civil conspiracy, and other charges following a Twitter controversy last February that he says led to his contract being dropped.
The lawsuit alleges many details previously not in the public sphere, including an allegation that the university conspired with a former student to amass more evidence of Manco’s purported racist behavior. The complaint states that Manco had given the former student an “F” grade in his class in the spring of 2017, and that the student did not complain about Manco while enrolled.
The 67-page suit also names five alumni and one current faculty member as defendants. It does not request a specific dollar amount for damages, which include “back-pay and front-pay, compensatory, and punitive damages,” and other relief.
St. Joe’s removed Manco from the classroom on Feb. 19 after an unknown number of people flagged one of his tweets alleging racist behavior. The Twitter account, @SouthJerzGiants, was essentially anonymous although Manco had occasionally identified the account operator as a math professor at the university.
“Suppose your great-great-grandfather murdered someone,” he tweeted on Feb. 17. “The victim’s great-great-grandson knocks on your door, shows you the newspaper clipping from 1905, and demands compensation from you. Your response?
“Now get this racist reparation bulls*** out of your head for good,” he concluded.
In another tweet that users flagged, Manco questioned the efficacy of racial sensitivity trainings that have become common in academia and the corporate world.
As developments unfolded in February, Manco published a Twitter thread trying to rebut many of the claims circulating about him at the time.
“This is why I intend to fight this. This is why I leave the account public and keep up these tweets. We have to take a stand against this awful and destructive trend in American life, where many people with non-leftist political beliefs are made to live in fear,” he said in the thread.
The ensuing investigation by the university lasted the remainder of the semester. Even though no wrongdoing by Manco was found, the university decided not to renew his contract as a “visiting professor” for the following semester — something the university blamed on shifting enrollment numbers and ongoing budget considerations and not on the tweets.
Although the controversy only exploded into public view in mid-February, Manco and his attorneys say the matter began a month before when a former student complained to St. Joe’s after discovering the Twitter account was run by Manco.
Broad + Liberty is currently not naming the former student because it lacks an email or phone number by which to request comment.
The January complaint resulted in a meeting on the 26th of that month with Title IX coordinator Lexi Morrison and other university officials, according to the filing.
“During this ‘consultation process,’ Ms. Morrison broke with procedure and conspired with [the student] by advising her to find others to support her experience with Dr. Manco and to get them to reach out to her,” the filing says.
The filing then adds that Manco was “completely unaware” this process was underway — in what would be an apparent violation of the university’s own published standards.
Manco alleges he was defamed by the university in other ways.
When the student newspaper, The Hawk, reported on the controversy, it reported that “Twitter users began harassing the students [who flagged Manco’s tweets] online and sending death threats. The threats have been ongoing since the initial thread was posted.”
The report did not cite any sources, link to any tweets, or present any screenshots of the alleged death threats.
Manco told Broad + Liberty the university’s investigation — a document that has not been put into the public domain by the university — exonerated him on this issue.
“This false statement [by the paper], which severely impugns Dr. Manco’s professionalism, was repeated by other St. Joseph’s faculty members over the course of the rest of the semester,” Manco alleges.
He further claims the university’s investigation completely exonerated him on all matters, but that the public statement released by the university’s public relations team defamed him by casting the results in a darker light.
“In this case, a definitive determination [as to Manco’s conduct] could not be made due to insufficient evidence,” the university said in May.
Manco also said he felt being removed from the classroom during the investigation may have been the move that most damaged his reputation. Manco had previously pointed to a university manual that said suspensions could only be imposed if the “safety and security” of students is threatened, which he disputes was the case.
Some elements of the lawsuit’s claims were not supported with exhibits, but Manco said all of those missing documents are in the university’s possession and his legal team would attempt to obtain that evidence in discovery if the case proceeds to that point.
The filing presents several pieces of evidence purporting to show his fourteen years at the university were valued. He pointed to a 2012 merit award, as well as a 2020 email from a faculty advisor who told him, “Your course evaluations look great!”
He also presented a text message thread between him and the student accuser in which he made accommodations for the student to take an exam at a different time because of an injury.
As for the other defendants, Manco in general alleges many of them aided the defamation by spreading the complaints from the original student on social media while impugning his character or labeling him “racist.”
In response to a news article that some alumni were withholding donations over the controversy, a current faculty member wrote in a tweet that others ought to donate “with a message that says you support a SJU that does not re-hire faculty who don’t treat students with equal respect.”
The filing points out that the faculty member who tweeted this message is believed to be the life partner of the interim dean who did not review Manco’s contract.
Gail Benner, a communications officer with the university, told Broad + Liberty, “The matter is before the court, and out of respect for the judicial process, Saint Joseph’s University will respond in that forum.”
Even though the university did not renew Manco’s contract for the 2021-22 academic year, it did hire him as an adjunct professor, and he is currently teaching. The adjunct position, however, is far less secure in terms of future employment, and it pays a smaller salary with fewer benefits.
The entire affair echoes the kind of free-speech controversies that have roiled academia in recent years, especially as social media continues to penetrate daily life in America.
For example, in 2016 the University of Illinois agreed to a $600,000 settlement to Steven Salaita after it revoked a job offer to him because of a tweet he published regarding Israeli-Palestinian politics.
Manco’s case has occasionally drawn attention from national figures. When news broke that Manco’s contract would not be renewed, Georgetown Constitutional law professor and frequent cable news contributor Jonathan Turley called it “a chilling turn of events.”
“The message seems clear that, even if you are found to have protected speech, you are not protected as an academic for raising a dissenting voice … even anonymously.”
A small group of St. Joe’s alumni backing Manco staged a protest on campus last summer. Critical of what they say is a leftward political trend by the university, they have been urging other alumni to pressure the university.
“Since the August protest, the alumni group has been seeking to generate further St. Joe’s alumni commitments to cut off donations to the school and they have had some success,” Chris Lehman told Broad + Liberty after being shown the lawsuit.
“One 1966 graduate from Nevada wrote on Aug. 22nd to Vice President for University Relations Joseph Kender indicating that he supported the alumni group and its concerns and that he had instructed his lawyer ‘to remove St. Joe’s from my estate plan.’ Other wealthy alumni have made similar pledges and, by the alumni group’s calculation, the amounts they are aware of exceed two million dollars,” Lehman added.
Although Lehman was unaware at the time, his band of protesters was representative of a number of other such groups organically percolating throughout the country for the same reasons.
In November, the Wall Street Journal profiled similar alumni organizations who “believe progressive groupthink has taken over college campuses, and are urging schools to protect free speech and encourage a diverse set of views. In some cases, alumni are withholding donations to pressure schools to take them seriously.”
Manco is represented by Joseph Toddy, of Zarewing, Baum, DeVito, Kaplan, Schaer & Toddy, P.C.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com.