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A few months ago, my alma mater emailed me a cease and desist letter for repeatedly trying to have a grievance against a former professor dismissed and complaining about how the dept. chair handled the situation. (My attempts were spread across around 7 months and involved going to various levels of administration, the Board of Regents, and asking a couple of faculty and staff members to reach out to her on my behalf.) In addition to the request to "cease and desist' from that behavior, the letter prohibited me from communicating with anyone at the university except their assistant general counsel. (Every employee at the university has been instructed to forward/report all communications from me.)

I've reported the university to a state agency for how they handled the situation and requested that they investigate to find out if there was a grievance against the prof., and if there was, to have it and any consequences she may have faced reversed. (The dept. chair told me in writing that there was a formal grievance, but the university denied this once I started requesting to retract it.) Due to the Covid situation, however, this agency is behind in processing complaints, and the professor will soon retire.

I sometimes consider emailing her to apologize and explain how my mental health (combined with my admiration for her) affected my behavior. I don't expect anything from her, but I hated the way things ended between us, and this may help me feel better. However, I'm sure she'd have to forward the letter to the asst. general counsel, so I want to ask what potential consequences I could face if she does?

I'm not going to risk being charged with harassment, involuntarily committed (can they do that if I'm not a danger to myself/others?) or any other serious consequences. However, the letter might have been an intimidation tactic to get me to discontinue trying to retract the grievance/ complaining about how the chair handled the situation.

Would they even have grounds for taking any legal action against me for apologizing to a professor?

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    Don't demand that she not be punished. If you demand it, you're only going to dig a deeper hole for yourself. Furthermore, it's unlikely that her punishment was that significant if they just looked at the email threads. A two line apology, that's all you need. Just apologize, but without incriminating yourself too much. Have your own friends (or us) review your apology before you send it out. And send out that apology to the Professor via the care of the General Counsel. If it's a good concise apology, the General Counsel will forward it I'm sure. – Stephan Branczyk Jun 16 at 4:50
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    I looked at your other posts including on Academia. You said the Chair said he spoke with her; it sounds like it ended there and she has no hard feelings (paraphrasing). You need to let it go. It is the kindest thing you can do for the Prof and for yourself. – Damila Jun 16 at 5:34
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    You’ve listed some ways it could hurt. This is Law, not Interpersonal Skills, but if you are doing it for her, let it go. – Damila Jun 16 at 5:50
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    How many questions about this are you going to post? Give it up, nobody is going to tell you this is a good idea – Kat Jun 16 at 16:03
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    Anyone who wants to respond to this question should first read the backstory in all the other questions by this poster. – user3067860 Jun 16 at 16:14
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A cease and desist letter is basically a formal way of them saying, "stop what you are doing, and please don't do it again."

It is not proof of tortious conduct by you, nor is it proof of illegal conduct by you. It does not open up an avenue for the university to sue you, nor does it open up an avenue for the university to have you committed to a mental institution. Your behaviour after receiving such a letter does matter however.

What is most likely their next step should you continue emailing members of the university, is to apply for an injunction. It is possible that should the injunction be granted, you may be liable to pay fees. Breaching an injunction can have serious consequences, including jail.

I would recommend against writing a letter apologizing. You are doing the very thing they asked you not to do. If you do feel in inclined to apologize, you should write the letter to the general council and ask them to forward it along. They probably won't. Obviously you have to be quite careful with the content of the letter.

You are almost certainly within your rights to continue to email their general council. In addition, they almost certainly cannot stop you from communicating with the state agency responsible for the university.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Dale M Jun 17 at 8:03
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    The suggestion that a judge would grant an injunction against future speech is laughable. Even Trump's lawsuit against John Bolton doesn't ask for that, as everyone knows it's unconstitutional, in virtually every circumstance. – bdb484 Jun 17 at 17:31
  • @bdbd84 Injunctions requiring people not come into contact with specific other people are reasonably common. What you seem to fail to understand is a judge will look on each situation on its merits. – Gregory Currie Jun 17 at 23:52
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    Injunctions against coming into contact with people are common. Injunctions against speech are not, and injunctions against asking the government to redress a grievance are basically unheard-of. Because the OP is asking about an American public university, any answer that does not account for the uniqueness of First Amendment law is bound to miss the point. – bdb484 Jun 18 at 13:39
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    @bdb484 At no point I said the injunction is to prevent speech. The injunction would be to stop the OP from harassing members of the university staff. The OP is of course free to continue to discuss the matter with other people, including the state board, local press, state representatives etc. The nature of the injunction would be to balance the rights of the university workers against the rights of the OP to reach redress. – Gregory Currie Jun 18 at 13:53
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I'm not going to risk being charged with harassment, involuntarily committed (can they do that if I'm not a danger to myself/others?) or any other serious consequences.

That's not even a worry. But given the far you have over it, it's time to stop talking, stop thinking, and get yourself competent legal counsel. Not least, so they can tell you that :)

Right now, you are your own worst enemy. I get it, it's an open wound, your brain can't stop thinking about it, and you are filled with the drive/need to do something. Catch yourself at that, and decide what you want to do: Handle those emotions (counseling/support/priest/letting go/etc.) or resolve the external situation?

The emotional thing is out of our bailiwick, but I want you to be very clear on what it is you really need before you go down the legal path. Pursuing the legal path to answer that urge to do "something" / fill that emotional hole is a huge mistake that will lead to even more suffering. But not criminal charges, unless somebody does something criminal.

The Cease & Desist order, plus $6, can be redeemed for a small coffee at Starbucks

Its meaning/value are limited. If it comes from the perpetrator, obviously, it means nothing and is a complete joke. Imagine Harvey Weinstein sending a cease and desist to stop talking about their sexual abuse! That would be meaningless.

If it came from the university's counsel, then it has the small value of allowing them to trot into court and say "We served you notice", but that doesn't mean anything either, unless they can show you engaged in a pattern of behavior that was extreme and bizarre.

The mere seeking of redress is perfectly reasonable -- just ask any debt collector! However in the law, there is a balance between the right to demand, and the right not to be harassed.

And you bet there's a free speech argument here -- they can't force you to un-friend the people you know there! And they can't force you to "go away"!

However, "Talk to our lawyers" is fairly important

When a person or company says "It's time for you to start talking to my lawyer", you should probably heed that. The court system (being made of lawyers) does endorse this strategy; not least because beyond a certain point, a lawsuit becomes the likeliest course of resolution, and at that point, legal counsel is supposed to be the single channel through which everything goes.

So yes, if someone has said "Stop talking to random employees, start talking to counsel", you ought to heed that and talk to counsel.

The reason is that when you get to lawsuit, they can use that against you. Once you decide to sue, you must start going through the single channel of the lawyers. For instance if you interview an employee, that's supposed to happen in deposition with both lawyers present. If you have communications without them, that's called an "ex-parté" communication, and it creates a lot of problems for the case. This can taint your case and make you look sloppy.

And mind you, this may not be your lawsuit you are tainting. For instance if the professor is already defending.

If you have something to add to a case, talk to the friendly side.

If you have testimony to support one side, go talk to them about how best to use that testimony. Again this has to go through their lawyers, because they know their strategy and how you could help; and you do not.

Even if they haven't filed a lawsuit, you can present evidence via something called an affadavit, a written statement which you sign and get notarized. They may be able to wave it at the university and get a concession.

For the record, we're a long long way from jail

We're a long long way from this thing placing anyone at risk for a ride in a police car. Right now it sounds like everything is an academic matter, it's not even a civil matter where jail is also not a possibility.

So first, things would have to cross the line into where the civil courts were involved. And then, you would have to really anger a judge to the point where the judge declares you in contempt of the court's authority, and then the judge can jail you as a matter of caprice. The only path i can imagine is if somebody found a way to frame what's happening as stalking and got a restraining order (those you must obey) and then you blatantly ignored it. Restraining orders work on the "contempt of court" mechanism.

The only other possible way is if things go so bad they crossed into criminal law. But usually competent lawyering keeps small-time and first-time offenders out of jail.

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    I think the serving of documents points you are making are a bit irrelevant. If they sent an email that was replied to, that is also proof enough. Also, are lawyers really cheap where you are? I mean, I'd only engage one if I didn't intend to cease and desist. Simply complying will cause the issue to go away, and if not, there will be time to lawyer up. – Gregory Currie Jun 16 at 17:52
  • @GregoryCurrie I cover that under "admit having received it" (replying is admitting), but if they sent a C&D via email, that's pretty lame. As far as cost of counsel, I'm gently reminding OP that proceeding comes with risks and costs. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jun 16 at 18:10
  • "OK, you need to stop talking, stop thinking, and get yourself competent legal counsel. Right Now." Not gentle and not conditional. – Gregory Currie Jun 17 at 0:31
  • I don't suppose you have any laws supporting the supposed legal implications of refusing to route communications through the lawyers. All of it appears to be way, way off. – bdb484 Jun 17 at 2:20
  • @bdb484 I already discuss it, it's called *ex parté" communication, and it's covered in the courts' procedural rules: the rules on how the court does business. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jun 17 at 5:45
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A cease and desist letter usually alleges some illegal conduct such as defamation, and threatens a lawsuit if you do not cease and desist. If you received such a letter written by an actual attorney, the risk is that if you continue, you might get sued. Consulting an attorney, who will read the letter, would not be unwise. Their grounds for a suit would not be apologizing to the professor: however, you should be very careful in what you say in that letter, to be sure that it is not in fact defamatory (do not rely on your own intuitions about what constitutes defamation).

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  • they accused me of harassing employees (I didn't) and threatened to pursue "all legal, equitable, and admin. action" against me should the behavior continue. They didn't even specify a course of action, so I wonder if it's an intimidation tactic. – Gemini Jun 16 at 5:35
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    @Gemini All C&D's are (legal) intimidation tactics by their nature. They claim you've done something they could take you to court over, and are preparing to do so, but if you just stop then they'll do you the favor of not doing so. Litigation is costly and time consuming for everyone, so most parties want to avoid it, and the C&D letter is an offer for both sides to avoid that. That said: of course they're not going to specify a particular action. Why would they? They have neither requirement nor incentive to spell out or constrain what particular legal avenues they might pursue. – zibadawa timmy Jun 16 at 10:53
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    Be bold: "would not be unwise" --> "would be wise". – chux - Reinstate Monica Jun 16 at 14:10
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Because you're dealing with a public university, there's virtually nothing they can do if you continue writing letters. The only real exception would be if they give anyone reasonable grounds to believe you're a danger to yourself or others, or otherwise fall into any of several very narrow categories of unprotected speech.

This sort of thing is right in the heartland of First Amendment-protected activity, which prohibits the government from interfering with your right to petition the government for a redress of your grievances. You are not obligated to run your petition through general counsel or anyone else.

EDIT: Just coming back to link to a recent decision addressing some of the comments making the unsupported claim that your letters could be punished as harassment. Under First Amendment law, "harassment" is generally still protected speech in the setting of communicating with the government. The new case involves a man repeatedly e-mailing Sen. Mitch McConnell with messages like:

turtle,

If you push this for Friday, the resistance is coming to DC to slash your throat. You will die in thestreet by DC resistance motherfucker!!!!!

You will not live to regret it!!!!!!

The feds charged him with telecommunications harassment, but the court threw charges out, saying the First Amendment does not permit the government to make it a criminal offense for someone "to harass a public official with his speech." The decision is United States v. Weiss, No. 20-cr-00013-CRB-1 (N.D. Cal., July 28, 2020).

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    Just a cavet, it's likely they can continue writing letters to the general council, and the state board. – Gregory Currie Jun 16 at 14:36
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    Correct. They can continue writing letters to whichever state officials they like. – bdb484 Jun 16 at 19:15
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    @bdb484, there's nothing they can do if you keep writing letters to the general counsel, or possibly to the Board of Regents. Writing letters to faculty members or others outside the relevant decision-making chain is likely to be considered harassment. – Mark Jun 16 at 21:05
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    @Gemini Nothing of what you just said changes what Mark said. You know how people are going to remember your professor: "The one with the crazy student who went on a crusade." Have you considered for one moment the effect of your actions has on the reputation of the professor. You're not fixing it. You're making it worse. – Gregory Currie Jun 17 at 0:40
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    @bdb484 I think it's a bit more complicated than "I have a constitutional right therefore I can say whatever I want to whomever I want whenever I want". – Gregory Currie Jun 17 at 2:28
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The main legal effect of a cease and desist letter is to establish that if you continue in your course of conduct, that your actions were made with full knowledge of the contents of the cease and desist letter, and intentionally in defiance of that request of the cease and desist letter.

There are many civil wrongs and criminal offenses that are only actionable if made knowingly or intentionally, or which are subject to more severe punishments or sanctions or liability if done intentionally rather than merely accidentally or without knowledge of the pertinent facts.

A cease and desist letter can also be used to undermine a response to a lawsuit in legal filings that is untenable if one is aware of the facts demonstrated in the cease and desist letter.

For example, in a case of alleged defamation, there is generally no liability in an important subclass of cases if a statement is not made with knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. But if a cease and desist letter alerts someone to the fact that their statement was untrue (e.g. a claim that someone isn't a U.S. citizen when a verifiable copy of a passport and/or birth certificate are provided, or an obvious case of mistaken identity when your client has the same same but is a different person than the one the speaker intended to refer to) and the statement is reiterated after receiving the cease and desist letter, there might be defamation liability for the statements made after the cease and desist letter is sent.

Often, in patent, trademark, trade secret, and copyright cases, a cease and desist letter putting someone on notice that they are violating a patent, trademark or copyright will increase the damages that are available for a violation. And, in a patent case, the substantive right is a right to demand something not use your patent, and not a right to have others pro-active refrain from using your patent, so a cease and desist letter is a pre-requisite to bringing a patent infringement lawsuit.

If someone responded in answer to a lawsuit alleging patent infringement arguing that they didn't know about the existence of the patent even after receiving a cease and desist letter, the party or the lawyer for the party sued might be sanctioned by the court for presenting a frivolous defense to the lawsuit.

A cease and desist letter can also sometimes function as a crude settlement offer - providing someone an opportunity to avoid a lawsuit by discontinuing their actions.

A cease and desist letter can also be a formal and polite way to inform you that further communications are futile because the institution has made up its mind and making a non-legally binding request that you stop because it isn't appreciated and comes across to them as excessive and rude.

All of this being said, if there is a bona fide dispute even after the cease and desist letter is received regarding the existence of legal liability, for example, when someone gets a cease and desist letter demanding that they not trespass on land when there is a bona fide dispute over who owns the land that does not have an obvious resolution based merely upon the facts disclosed in the cease and desist letter, usually a cease and desist letter is ignored.

The facts in the question don't appear to obviously indicate anything other than a polite and firm request that you cease to do what you are doing with no legal consequences, but conveying the message to you that further correspondence from you would be futile, because the institution has made up its mind regarding how it will handle the situation.

But, without more specific facts it isn't possible to know if there are other consequences that could be invoked by the university (e.g. making a notation on your transcript if it is requested by a third party).

All other things being equal, it would probably be better to stop communicating, rather than following up with an apology or response, unless you have a good reason to act otherwise.

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