RESPONSE TO ARGUMENTS AGAINST SUSPENSION OF PAUL DeRIENZO
by Pacifica National Board Members Michael Tarif Warren, Ray Laforest, and Bob Lederer
Since the March 9 suspension by the WBAI LSB of its member Paul DeRienzo for severe, persistent disruption and abusive conduct toward other board members (full text pasted at the end of this email), various arguments have been posed that the action was unwarranted, excessively harsh, and/or violative of Robert's Rules of Order and/or Pacifica's bylaws.
Here we respond to the main arguments that have been offered.
We welcome dialogue around these issues. Feel free to contact any of us to discuss this further.
CLAIM: The board majority was actually punishing Mr. DeRienzo for his exercise of free speech, however distasteful it might have been. Thus the suspension was an act of retaliation against a member of a political minority.
RESPONSE: It must be made very clear that Mr. DeRienzo was suspended for a persistent pattern of CONDUCT -- vicious, discriminatory words in COMBINATION with physical action -- that was assaultive against people's identities and dignities, discriminatory against the social group to which they belonged (indeed potentially actionable), and physically threatening to board members and listeners attending the meeting. The physically threatening aspect of his conduct alone (outlined below) would provide strong grounds for the suspension. Additionally, when Mr. DeRienzo screamed, insulted, and loudly interrupted speakers who disagree with him, he effectively silenced others, physically denying them their right to free speech.
Beyond this, Mr. DeRienzo's overall pattern of conduct went far beyond robust dissenting speech, or even mere use of profanity in and of itself, to highly personalized defamatory efforts to tear people to shreds. For instance, at several meetings, he taunted board member Michael Tarif Warren, a renowned defense attorney. DeRienzo not only repeatedly demanded to know "Did you pass the bar in New York State?", but also told Mr. Warren, "I've researched you." Given that Mr. DeRienzo was well aware from his reporting that Mr. Warren is an activist attorney who has represented many unpopular clients and been in the media glare, this was a malicious attempt to hurt Mr. Warren's reputation and injure his livelihood.
Similarly, Mr. DeRienzo repeatedly attacked Father Lawrence Lucas, a respected author and priest who has long served poor communities, particularly incarcerated people, as a "lame ass" and a "loser" and at a later meeting called into question his work as a prison chaplain. Again, this treatment was clearly designed to humiliate and attack his community reputation.
Mr. DeRienzo's taunt of board member Omowale Clay "Did you demonstrate against 'The Color Purple'?" was a racialized attack implying something unsavory about Mr. Clay's politics and beliefs concerning a famous film focusing on spousal abuse by an African American man -- which incidentally had absolutely nothing to do with anything being discussed by the board at that point.
The way Mr. DeRienzo singled out these three African-American men for vicious attacks and taunts, in each case playing to classic stereotypes, demonstrates the racist nature of his conduct.
Additionally, Mr. DeRienzo's hurling of the "Fuck you!" expletive five times at the female board chair, Vajra Kilgour, constituted a vicious, sexualized attack -- indeed, a total violation of her as a woman. To punctuate his point, he slammed his papers down on the table. No woman in any institution, let alone a progressive one like Pacifica, should have to bear such abuse. It should be noted that Mr. DeRienzo deliberately repeated the epithet and shouted "Put it on the record!" after other board members protested his use of such a degrading insult.
Finally, Mr. DeRienzo's repeated use of Nazi references and terminology -- such as "Sieg Heil!", "You are a Fascist!" "Nazi! When are you going to open BAI's ovens?" "Nazi scum! Adolph Vajra!," "Burn the Reichstag!" and "Open the camps and gulags!" -- to personally abuse board members with whom he disagreed constituted anti-semitic language. By comparing decisions of a community radio board with genocidal policies that led to the murder of six million Jews and of many other peoples, Mr. DeRienzo cruelly trivialized the suffering of many, including the relatives of one board member who were killed by the Nazis during the European Holocaust. It should be further noted that his comments were made without provocation, following a general parliamentary ruling by the chair that did not even involve Mr. DeRienzo individually. Given that Black-Jewish relations have been a sensitive issue here in New York City, such remarks -- and his repeated screams of "anti-semites!" at the board majority during the discussion of the suspension motion -- can only be seen as a move to inflame such tensions.
In sum, the many instances of out-of-order conduct by Mr. DeRienzo were not only severely disruptive of the LSB meetings in question, but direct violations of the Pacifica Foundation Non-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy, which applies to board members as well as staff members, and includes, among others, the following provisions:
"Conduct that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward an
"Harassing conduct includes, but is not limited to: epithets, slurs or negative stereotyping; threatening, intimidating or hostile acts; denigrating jokes and display or circulation in the workplace of written or graphic material that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual or group (including through e-mail)."
Such conduct must be dealt with by very strong disciplinary measures in order to protect the rights of both other board members and the listeners not to be subject to discriminatory abuse. Furthermore, it must be remembered that the Pacifica Foundation operates within the larger environment of laws that prohibit discriminatory conduct.
CLAIM: A suspension of six months is too harsh as a first-time penalty. Lesser penalties should have been tried first.
RESPONSE: Before the motion for suspension was brought, the LSB chair and majority had patiently tolerated three meetings of disruption and abuse by Mr. DeRienzo. Not only had he defiantly rejected all polite efforts to bring him to order, but he showed his contempt for even the right of the chair to maintain order at a meeting, shouting comments like "You know I never listen to you!"
More fundamentally, the aggressiveness of his attacks was escalating. The vicious verbal attacks were increasingly threatening -- such as shouting "Fuck You!" five times directly at the chair and then slamming his papers down on the table. At several meetings, he moved around the meeting room in a physically threatening and frightening manner, sometimes coming within inches of people's faces while screaming at them.
On March 9, at the very moment the suspension motion was discussed, Mr. DeRienzo was menacingly pacing up and down the aisles shouting nonstop invective at the chair and other board members. Between shouts, he physically accosted listeners from the public, singling out people for castigation. He shouted at one woman, "You may be Jewish, but you're an anti-semite!" and continually cried "Nazis!" at the board. This deliberately created a provocative climate that incited other members of the public to join the verbal assaults, such as one person who -- immediately after Mr. DeRienzo's shouts -- repeatedly screamed "Black Nazis!" and "Mafia!" at African American board members. During public comment, one listener passionately expressed her pain as a Jewish survivor of the European Holacaust to witness such behavior by Mr. DeRienzo that made light of the suffering experienced by herself, her family and many others.
Mr. DeRienzo's conduct was escalating to the point that the board's meeting was almost totally disrupted -- which seemed to be the intent -- thus making it extremely difficult to perform its business.
In sum, the penalty was commensurate with the severity of Mr. DeRienzo's discriminatory and threatening conduct, which strikes at the heart of what Pacifica is as an institution. Any other non-profit board would have expelled him for such conduct.
CLAIM: A six-month suspension is a "constructive removal" - i.e., a disguised expulsion that disenfranchises members who voted for that board member, and therefore can only occur as per the bylaws expulsion provision requiring 30 days written notice and a vote of 2/3 of all LSB members.
RESPONSE: In plain English, this is simply incorrect. The bylaws provision with the requirements referred to in the claim (Article 4, Section 9) only applies to the method by which "any Delegate shall be removed from the position of Delegate, and cease to be a Delegate." Clearly that has not occurred here, as Mr. DeRienzo has the opportunity to resume serving on the LSB after his suspension is over. Furthermore, the bylaws require (in Article 16) that "The rules contained in Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised, as amended from time to time, shall govern the Foundation in all cases where they are applicable and in which they are not inconsistent with these Bylaws or any special rules of order which the Foundation may adopt." Since neither the bylaws nor any special rules of order cover the question of suspensions, the LSB (or PNB) is obligated to rely on Robert's Rules for guidance.
Robert's Rules offers several disciplinary options for a board "[i]n cases of obstinate or grave breach of order by a member" (p. 627, line 3). "A motion offered in a case of this kind can propose that the member be required to make an apology, that he [sic] be censured, that he be required to leave the hall during the remainder of the meeting or until he is prepared to apologize, that his rights of membership be suspended for a time [emphasis added], or that he be expelled from the organization." (p. 627, line 34 ff). Note that the time frame of suspension is merely stated as "for a time"--i.e., no maximum period is specified. Robert's Rules shortly afterwards notes that "Expulsion from membership requires a two-thirds vote." That reference to a two-thirds vote is ONLY specified for expulsion - and as explained elsewhere in the book, all actions require only a majority of those present and voting unless otherwise stated.
Furthermore, it would be nonsensical to forbid any suspensions of board members in the name of preserving a supposed right of the voters to have their representative remain on the board no matter what misconduct s/he commits. Any board needs to protect its right to conduct business without persistent, severe disruption, and the right of its members and members of the listening public not to be personally and chronically abused and the objects of discriminatory attacks by its own board members.
CLAIM: Robert's Rules of Order requires boards to follow progressive discipline in enacting penalties, and that did not occur in this case.
RESPONSE: In fact, progressive discipline was followed. Over the course of several meetings, the Chair repeatedly called Mr. DeRienzo to order, and repeatedly requested -- even pleaded -- that he stop his disruptive conduct, several times calling him by name, all to no avail. At the start of the Feb. 8 meeting, the Chair specifically named Mr. DeRienzo, warned that his "getting up and shouting at other board members" was out of order and that she would take further steps if such conduct recurred. At the very meeting at which the suspension motion was being debated (Mar. 9), Mr. DeRienzo yelled constantly and stalked the aisles while the mover was reading the motion. The Chair again tried over and over to bring him to order, asked him to take his seat, to please stop shouting, but he refused. At that point, the Chair had the secretary write in the minutes some of the offensive words he had just repeated (to Mr. Warren: "Did you pass the bar exam in New York State?"), and the body debated and voted on the motion for suspension.
In reality, the chair treated Mr. DeRienzo with humanity and sensitivity at each point by trying to persuade him to come to order, rather than moving immediately to ask the body for punitive measures. Each time he responded with disdain and contempt, and used the opportunity to escalate and provoke. Finally, after the third meeting in which Mr. DeRienzo had acted in an abusive and discriminatory manner and following repeated warnings, the Chair put the item on the agenda for the board to decide whether to take disciplinary action.
CLAIM: Robert's Rules of Order requires the board member who is facing a penalty to have advance notice and a formal trial.
RESPONSE: This is only the case for formal trials, which are only mandated in cases of conduct OUTSIDE of a board meeting. For conduct DURING a board meeting, the body may act without any advance notice by a simple motion (see Robert's Rules of Order, 10th Ed., p. 627, line 12). No trial is required, only that the member accused of misconduct must have a chance to defend himself. That right was accorded to Mr. DeRienzo by the Chair during the discussion on the suspension motion. (Incidentally, Mr. DeRienzo did not then or subsequently deny having made any of the statements cited in the motion; indeed, on several occasions, he expressed pride in them and made comments such as "Put it on the record!" after being criticized by other board members for abusive statements.)
It should also be noted that the matter of possible discipline of Mr. DeRienzo was included on the written agenda for the March 9 LSB meeting distributed by the chair when LSB members arrived. (Advance copies of agendas have almost never been provided to the LSB members before a meeting since the LSB was established more than a year ago.) When Mr. DeRienzo arrived, he announced that he was leaving the room so as not to be present when this matter was discussed. At that point, a motion was made and passed that in order to assure Mr. DeRienzo the opportunity to defend himself, this agenda item would only be brought forward whenever he returned to the room, and this was in fact done. When Mr. DeRienzo did return minutes later, the item was brought up, and he decided to stay; as mentioned above, he then availed himself of the opportunity granted to speak in his own defense (after loudly, persistently and abusively disrupting the reading of the motion, lodging further discriminatory attacks on other LSB members and listeners).
CLAIM: Publication of the suspension motion adopted by the LSB on the WBAI website (mandated within the motion itself) violated the provision in Robert's Rules that prohibits making misconduct charges public.
RESPONSE: Again, the wrong section of Robert's Rules is being cited. This prohibition falls under the section titled "Offenses Elsewhere Than in a Meeting; Trials" (p. 629, line 32) - referring ONLY to trials held in executive session for alleged conduct that occurred OUTSIDE a board meeting. As described above, there is a completely different set of rules for offenses that occur DURING a meeting - no trial is required, the proceedings may occur in public, and there is no prohibition on publishing any motions adopted as part of such disciplinary proceedings.
Furthermore, the motion for suspension was passed in an open public meeting, so was already a matter of public record. In any case, the bylaws require LSBs to publish approved minutes of all public meetings, so this part of the adopted motion simply expedited the publication of a public decision of the board on a matter that would be of considerable interest among the station's members. Indeed, given Pacifica's mandate for transparency of its decisions, it is the LSB's responsibility promptly to inform the station's members - most of whom are not able to attend its meetings -- of its action on a matter as important as the suspension of one of its own members.