Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s chief of staff, Reyn Archer, said he called UNL professor Ari Kohen and his bosses to start a dialogue, not to intimidate him.

The vandals who defaced Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s campaign sign have a comedic sense with all the sophistication of a “Beavis and Butt-Head” episode.

A picture of the Nebraska Republican was altered to give him oversized googly eyes, the “o” in his name was remade into an “a” and the tagline on the bottom was adjusted to reference “strong odor.”

Despite the crudeness of the flatulence humor, Ari Kohen had to laugh when he saw a photo of the vandalized sign while scrolling through Facebook on his phone.

“It was sophomoric,” Kohen said. “It was silly. I think a lot of people saw it and kind of had a chuckle. And I clicked ‘like’ and I didn’t think any more about it.”

An associate professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Kohen says he opposes vandalism and just thought the photo was funny.

But his click prompted what Kohen characterized as an effort by Reyn Archer, Fortenberry’s chief of staff, to threaten and intimidate him. Kohen has filed an ethics complaint against Archer.

For his part, Archer told The World-Herald that in no way was he trying to intimidate anyone, but rather just have a dialogue.

Archer tried to contact Kohen early last week, but the professor was out of town for a few days and didn’t immediately get the message. After a couple of days without a response, Archer sent an email to Kohen’s department chair, dean and the university chancellor.

Eventually, Archer and Kohen spoke by phone — a conversation Kohen recorded.

He released a clip from the call in which Archer can be heard saying that he contacted Kohen’s supervisors “to remind them that we live in a community and that it is important that faculty not condone vandalism or even worse violence.”

The two spar in the recording over whether “liking” a photo on social media constitutes “liking” vandalism. Toward the end of the clip, Archer raises the possibility of taking the matter public.

“We have a First Amendment opportunity to basically put you out there in front of everybody and even put this clearly as ‘Why is a professor liking vandalism?’ ” Archer says on the recording. “We can do that publicly. Would you like that? That’s our First Amendment right, too.”

Kohen took those statements as a threat that they were going to expose him to public harassment. He says he has seen colleagues harassed and even targeted with death threats in the past over seemingly minor actions.

“These are very silly things that turn into very serious things,” he said.

Kohen, who is Jewish, pointed to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting that occurred just hours after his conversation with Archer and said he was mindful of how being exposed to public harassment could potentially escalate into violence.

Archer says he was actually trying to defuse the situation all along and not threaten the professor in any way. He said he did not include Kohen’s name in the emails he sent to his bosses, for example.

“We never intended to intimidate him,” Archer said. “The goal was to enter into a real, personal, human dialogue to try to come to some agreement.”

In a statement, Fortenberry stressed that he views the vandalism of his sign seriously and that the police continue to be involved in the case.

“Political vandalism is against the law,” Fortenberry said in the statement. “It is — at a minimum — disrespectful of civil discourse and free speech. When a University professor of political science gives his assent to such vandalism, it sends a seriously wrong message.”

Both Fortenberry and Archer referred to the discussion with Kohen as ending on a pleasant note.

Archer said that in other parts of the conversation he talked about the importance of academic freedom and that Kohen sent an email afterward expressing gratitude for the conversation.

Kohen acknowledged that the conversation ended far more amiably than it started and that he followed up with an email — which he said reflects that he was raised to be polite.

But Kohen said none of that changes the fact that he felt they were trying to stifle his free speech.

“I think that there’s something really problematic in having people in positions of power, elected officials and their staff, who are actively monitoring things that we like on Facebook and then attempting to intimidate us into being more careful or checking ourselves before we speak,” Kohen said.

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Reporter - Politics/Washington D.C.

Joseph Morton is The World-Herald Washington Bureau Chief. Morton joined The World-Herald in 1999 and has been reporting from Washington for the newspaper since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @MortonOWH. Email:joseph.morton@owh.com

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