His name is Ron McGuire, and the raft of precedent-setting victories he’s logged the past 25 years rarely gets acknowledged.
“He is the John Brown of CUNY,” says civil rights lawyer Roger Wareham, referring to the famed abolitionist. “A white man representing mostly black and Hispanic students, and since black and brown lives still don’t matter in this society, his work is too often dismissed.”
But now McGuire, at age 67, is in the fight of his life before the U.S. Court of Appeals, seeking to recover legal fees for his most important victory.
The case, Husain vs. Springer, has dragged on for 18 years.
“It is one of the rare cases establishing that college journalists are constitutionally protected against retaliation by school administrators,” says Frank LoMonte, of the nonprofit Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C.
It all began in 1997, when Marlene Springer, then the president of the College of Staten Island, suddenly annulled the balloting for student government.
At the time, the CUNY system was in the midst of several campus protests. A newspaper on the Staten Island campus, College Voice, published a special edition prior to the election, openly backing a radical slate of candidates. Springer impounded the ballots and claimed the newspaper had “compromised” the voting with unfair coverage.
A subsequent tally showed the radicals would have won all 37 seats they were contesting.
Sarah Husain, one of the paper’s editors, and several other students sued in federal court, alleging their First Amendment rights had been violated.
That same year, following a successful CUNY-wide student strike against tuition hikes, McGuire successfully defended several protest leaders from being kicked out of school. One of those leaders, Ydanis Rodriguez, is now a City Council member and chairman of the higher education committee.
Then in 1999, McGuire prevailed in Smith vs. City University, where the state Court of Appeals ordered CUNY to hold all meetings in open session. “And in 2005, the state’s highest court ruled in Perez vs. City University that campus governance bodies could not make their decisions at public meetings by secret ballot."
McGuire’s most important victory, however, came in 2007, when a U.S. Court of Appeals panel ruled in the Staten Island case that “Springer’s nullification of the election created ... a chilling effect” on students’ First Amendment rights.
Eight years later, the fight over McGuire’s court fees for that case has not been settled. His initial request for more than $800,000 has been slashed to a mere $56,000 by another federal appeals panel — far less than he received in the Perez or Smith cases from the state.
“It’s a fantasy that you can win a piece of federal litigation for just $50,000 against a powerful government agency,” LoMonte said.
McGuire is now seeking a hearing before the full Court of Appeals in hopes of overturning the smaller panel’s ruling. The court will decide on his request in the next few weeks.
If lawyers like McGuire can’t receive adequate compensation for defending the rights of low-income students, then no one else will even try.