A B.C. man is one of ten former students of a historic Washington, D.C., university for the deaf community who are suing the school’s president for calling their old fraternity “the face of systemic racism.”
In a lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Tim Mallach claims he was forced to resign from his job as head of interpretation services for a major B.C. charity, after a donor sent a threatening letter in the wake of news reports and social media posts about Gallaudet University and the Kappa Gamma fraternity.
The claim against the university, its president and the Washington Post alleges Mallach and others are victims of a series of events that began with the circulation of decades-old pictures of fraternity members either wearing robes or performing a gesture resembling a Nazi salute.
The lawsuit says university president Roberta Cordano drew on those images to very publicly suspend the fraternity last summer in an attempt to divert attention from her administration’s own shortcomings in dealing with systemic racism.
‘Still suffering for it a year later’
Gallaudet’s history dates back to 1864, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the university’s enabling legislation into action. Cordano is the first deaf woman to head the school.
The lawsuit says her position, and the school’s reputation, gave special weight to her words.
“The effect of the false, outrageous and defamatory attack on Kappa Gamma and its alumni members … was fast, furious and widespread throughout the deaf community and the country, if not the world,” the lawsuit says.
The claim says “Wanted” style pictures of Kappa Gamma alumni made the rounds, “listing their current employment and other affiliations, and demanding that they be discharged and terminated from their employment and that their businesses not be patronized.”
Ralph Reiser, the New York-based lawyer who represents Mallach and the others, told CBC News his clients include educators, business people and the former commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
“The deaf community has always been very marginalized in American society. So for this to happen to them after dealing with deafness and dealing with it successfully — these people reflected well on Gallaudet for their accomplishments,” Reiser said.
“And for Gallaudet — by its president — to then turn on them and make this outrageous allegation against them … was totally wrong, defamatory and very damaging to these people, and they’re still suffering for it a year later.”
‘The Bellamy salute’
Mallach attended Gallaudet in the spring of 1990, but did not graduate from the university. According to the lawsuit, he was only a student member of Kappa Gamma from February to May of 1990, but is recognized as an alumnus.
According to the lawsuit, the fraternity — like many collegiate clubs — adopted a palm-out salute in 1901 that originated with Francis Bellamy, the author of the American Pledge of Allegiance.
The U.S. Congress replaced the Bellamy Salute during the pledge of allegiance with a hand-over-the-heart gesture in 1942 after the Nazis adopted a similar salute.
But the Kappa Gamma fraternity didn’t drop the salute until 1992-93.
The claim says the Nazi salute, “while having some similarities in appearance to the Bellamy salute, was not the same salute as the Bellamy salute.”
The lawsuit says the fraternity also sported robes from 1904 to 2015, when Gallaudet banned their use by Greek organizations in all public spaces.
In 2016, the university’s newspaper reported that old pictures of Kappa Gamma members doing the Bellamy salute — with their faces blotted out — were being “tweeted and re-tweeted.”
Four years later, the pictures emerged once again as the U.S. grappled with the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. At that point, questions arose about Gallaudet’s own history.
According to the claim, the university opened its doors to Black students in 1950 but only had 150 Black students on campus by 1989.
In a statement published in June 2020 the school recognized “the systemic racism embedded into the Gallaudet experience for many in our community.”
Cordano also announced she was suspending the fraternity.
“They have become the face of systemic racism in our community, with photographs of the salute and use of robes being shared on social media,” she said in a video posted on the Gallaudet YouTube channel.
“This behaviour is unacceptable.”
‘He will never obtain new employment’
The Washington Post did a story on the controversy which claimed the hand gesture in one picture was an “apparent Nazi salute” and that the outfits in other images included “ceremonial robes that resemble Ku Klux Klan garb.”
The lawsuit says those statements were not true and are defamatory.
Mallach referred comments to Reiser. The claim states that the Washington Post stories reached Canada, where they were seen by a “substantial donor” to his employer, the Wavefront Centre for Communication Accessibility.
Wavefront is the operating name for the Western Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, a charity established in 1956. The organization exists to reduce hearing-related communications barriers.
According to the claim, Mallach — who interpreted at Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart’s news conferences during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic — was asked to resign from his job as head of Wavefront’s interpretation services.
“The damage to Mallach’s reputation is such that he reasonably feels he will never obtain new employment,” the lawsuit says.
He is asking for $3 million.
“The resulting loss of employment, loss of earnings, and damage to his good name and reputation are such that Mallach will continue to suffer irreparable damage,” the claim says.
Neither the university nor the Washington Post responded to emailed requests for comment and neither organization has responded to the lawsuit.
Wavefront executive director Christopher Sutton confirmed that Mallach’s employment with the organization ended last June.
“Given that we have a policy of not discussing individual human resources matters publicly and that he appears to be pursuing litigation in the United States, we will not be able to provide further comment,” Sutton said in an email.
According to the university’s website, Gallaudet has announced plans to commit itself to 13 guiding principles of the Black Lives Matter movement, including training on bias, increased diversity in its student body and leadership and a review of all campus structures, names and signs.
None of the claims have been proven in court.