GREENWICH VILLAGE — A New York University Law trustee's company wants two students to hand over their personal emails after they circulated a letter criticizing him, according to a subpoena.
The law students, second-year Luke Herrine and first-year Leo Gertner, were targeted after they helped circulate a letter denouncing NYU Law School trustee Daniel Straus, who owns CareOne Management, a home health aide and nursing home company embroiled in a labor dispute.
The pair were among a group of students who gathered signatures on a letter that raised concerns about CareOne Management's treatment of its workers, including violations from the National Labor Relations Board, and asked the law school's dean to meet with them to discuss the issue.
But they never expected to be dragged into federal litigation between the health care company and its unionized workers. They said they were stunned when they were served with subpoenas from CareOne Management at their homes in Brooklyn over spring break last month.
"People want to be able to speak on campus about things that are important to them and this affects their ability to do so," said Herrine, who along with Gertner is being represented by a lawyer paid by NYU, who plans to file a motion next week to fight the subpoenas. "This makes them scared."
The subpoenas demanded all of Herrine and Gertner's emails, including drafts, that relate to Straus and CareOne Management.
It's the latest salvo in a lawsuit by Straus' company, which has been locked in a complex, yearslong legal battle with local labor union SEIU 1199. CareOne sued SEIU 1199 in 2012 and accused it of manipulating NYU students in a bid to kick Straus out of his leadership position at the school.
The subpoena sparked outrage on campus, along with a petition demanding that Straus withdraw the subpoenas and apologize for issuing them. The petition has gathered more than 500 signatures from NYU students, faculty and alumni.
"Forcing students to turn over emails and other private communications in litigation that does not concern them can chill free speech on campus and make students think twice about raising their voice about controversial issues," the petition to Straus reads. "This is antithetical to NYU's mission of open academic inquiry and commitment to the public interest."
Straus could not be reached for comment.
But a spokeswoman for his company said that while Gertner and Herrine are not "the target of the lawsuit," they believe "the individual students possess relevant evidence and a subpoena is the legal vehicle to obtain the relevant information."
"We understand that the students have retained counsel and we are hopeful to be able to obtain the relevant information in a cooperative manner with as little inconvenience to the students as possible," added Deborah Keller Maxson of Prism Public Affairs, which represents CareOne Management.
Herrine and Gertner said NYU Law School administrators have been privately supportive, including covering their legal costs to fight the subpoena, but they want the school to publicly support the students' right to free speech on campus.
The students said that next week their lawyer plans to ask the judge to quash the subpoena.
A representative for the law school confirmed Thursday that the school was paying for the students' attorney, but did not take sides on the subpoena.
“The Law School is not a party to the litigation between CareOne and SEIU, and will remain uninvolved in it," the school wrote in a statement to DNAinfo New York sent Thursday. "We vigorously support the right of our students to express their views and to organize and participate in lawful demonstrations and other protest activity, at the same time that we acknowledge that parties to litigation are permitted, subject to applicable rules and judicial oversight, to gather evidence in support of their case."
Shortly after sending the statement to DNAinfo, the law school sent out a notice to its students regarding the issue.
"No one in the Law School community would seek or welcome a conflict of any kind between a member of the Board of Trustees and a member of the student body," according to the statement by Law School Dean Trevor Morrison and the chairman of the Law School Board of Trustees, Anthony Welters. "As an educational institution, we are all fundamentally committed to the welfare of our students."
The school's statement was careful not to pick sides on the issue, praising Straus for his commitment to the school, while also expressing its "vigorous support" for "the right of our students to express their views and to organize and participate in lawful demonstrations and other protest activity."
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misstated who is demanding the students' emails. The subpoenas came from CareOne Management's attorneys and has not been enforced by the court.