Ohio court: Professor who joked about shooting tardy students was unlawfully suspended

An Ohio accounting professor who joked about mowing down his students with an AK-47 rifle after one of them arrived late to class was improperly suspended, a state court of appeals has ruled.

In Eckel v. Bowling Green State University, Ohio’s Tenth District Court of Appeals decided 3-0 that Bowling Green violated professor Normal Eckel’s tenure rights in suspending him for eight months without pay.

According to the ruling, Eckel blew up at a student who showed up for an accounting class 15 minutes before the end of the period and sent the student home. The professor made a pointed-gun motion with his fingers and said he should “shoot you guys,” adding that — with his AK-47 rifle — “two clips ought to do it.”

Although Eckel insisted he was joking, several students weren’t laughing and reported the comment to BGSU administrators as a threat.

The professor was suspended for two semesters, and appealed through university grievance channels. The Court of Appeals’ ruling, issued July 12, affirms a lower-court decision that went in the professor’s favor.

The court ruled that Bowling Green was contractually required to follow the standards outlined in the university’s “academic charter,” because that charter was referenced in the employment contract that faculty members sign each year. Because the charter entitles tenured faculty members to continued employment with only a few exceptions such as physical disability or a university financial emergency — none of which applied to Eckel’s situation — BGSU overstepped its authority in removing him and withholding his pay.

The court did not consider any broader constitutional issues about Eckel’s speech, so the ruling’s impact is limited to the context in which a college is contractually bound to follow certain personnel policies and fails to do so.

The appeals court sent the case back to a lower court to decide exactly how much Eckel is owed. At the time of the suspension in 2005, Eckel — who has since retired — was making about $102,000 a year.

A university spokesman told Inside Higher Ed that no decision had been made whether to appeal the ruling to the Ohio Supreme Court.