Punished for Talking to the Press

Two professors at Cuyahoga Community College are suing administrators, claiming they faced backlash for criticizing a discriminatory college policy to a local media outlet.

December 8, 2022
A building on the metro campus of Cuyahoga community college behind a green lawn.
(Cuyahoga Community College)

Two tenured professors at Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio are suing former and current administrators at the college. The faculty members claim they were retaliated against after they raised concerns about course scheduling practices disadvantaging students of color in an interview with a local media outlet last year. The college denies the allegations.

The lawsuit, filed last month, says faculty members Diane Gaston and Linda Lanier were penalized after speaking to WOIO Channel 19 News, a local CBS-affiliate television station, in May 2021. The professors told the interviewer they believed Cuyahoga Community College, also known as Tri-C, scheduled its upcoming fall 2021 classes in a way that would make it harder for students at the metro campus, located in downtown Cleveland, to access the same variety of in-person courses as their peers at the college’s suburban campuses.

The college offered fewer introductory-level courses in person on the college’s metro campus and offered no in-person religion or philosophy classes at that campus in the fall schedule, according to the lawsuit. Gaston and Lanier repeatedly told administrators over the course of several months that they thought Black students, who disproportionately attend the metro campus, would suffer with fewer in-person options, because some students lack the technology needed to thrive in online courses, like laptops and reliable broadband, and they might not have the resources to commute to the suburban campuses.

“The students at Metro, do not, by our own data, do well in a virtual, online environment,” Lanier, assistant professor of counseling, psychological and access services, told the news outlet. “Online courses are the highest courses—the highest failure rate … We know who is going to be hurt the most. First of all, students of color, students who lack technology, it’s poor students.”

“Our motto is ‘Tri-C is where futures begin,’” Gaston, an associate professor of philosophy, humanities and religious studies, said in the interview. “It doesn’t line up with that motto if certain students do not have the same opportunities, the same access.”

The then president of the college, Alex Johnson, who retired this summer, publicly chastised the two professors in a faculty and staff town hall meeting a few days after the interview, according to the lawsuit. Johnson described the professors’ opinions as “disturbing and unsubstantiated” in that meeting and told the crowd that they should report press inquiries to the Integrated Communications Department at the college.

“In the future, this is our expectation for all of you, and I’m so sorry that that happened,” Johnson said at the meeting. “And we’re going to make an effort to rectify it.”

A disciplinary hearing process that summer found that Gaston and Lanier had violated campus policies, resulting in a three-day unpaid suspension. The professors also claim they were ostracized by colleagues after the town hall. Some removed the two professors from email Listservs, neglected to respond to their messages and excluded them from committees and projects they had previously been a part of, according to the lawsuit. Lanier reportedly was also asked by two colleagues to step down from her position as co-chair of the counseling department because they believed the president publicly admonishing her compromised her leadership and she could face a vote of no confidence from her peers.

College administrators denied the retaliation allegations through a campus spokesperson.

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“Cuyahoga Community College denies any retaliation by anyone at the college as alleged in the complaint,” Anthony Moujaes, manager of public relations at the college, said in a statement. “Given that this matter is part of ongoing litigation, we have no further comment at this time.”

The professors were accused in their disciplinary process of breaching three different college policies: the employee code of conduct, which asks employees to “refrain from behavior that would cast the college in an unfavorable light”; a policy that the public affairs office represents the college to the public; and the collective bargaining agreement between Tri-C and the American Association of University Professors, which says faculty members should clarify in comments to the public that they are not spokespeople for the college.

Subodh Chandra, founding and managing partner of Chandra Law Firm, who’s representing the professors, said it was clear they were speaking as private citizens, not on behalf of the college, about an issue of public concern, which they have a right to do under the First Amendment as employees of a public college. The professors also told the Channel 19 interviewer to reach out to someone at the Integrated Communications Department for the administration’s perspective.

He added that a pair of U.S. Supreme Court cases, Garcetti v. Ceballos in 2006 and Lane v. Franks in 2014, affirm that “public employees do not surrender their constitutional right to free speech by virtue of being public employees” as long as it’s not a part of their regular job duties on behalf of their employer.

“If you look at the actual policies of the college that the college was raising as the basis for discipline, those policies do not prohibit what the professors were doing,” he said. “But to the extent it can be read as doing so, then the policy is unconstitutional. But a public college can’t issue policies that violate the Constitution. I think even a fifth grader would understand that.”

He said the case could act as a warning to public colleges with media relations policies that prevent faculty and staff members from publicly airing concerns.

“There may be colleges that don’t understand that their social media policies and that their media communication policies are constitutionally overbroad,” he said. “Because if they’re challenged, they’re going to lose. And if they try to enforce those policies in an unconstitutional matter, they’re going to lose.”

Michael DeCesare, senior program officer in the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance at AAUP, said his association holds that academic freedom includes “speech or action that’s critical of institutional policy and those in authority.”

“Trying to figure out if an institutional policy is desirable or undesirable, voices have to be heard and decisions need to be assessed to determine if the policy is actually appropriate, and one of the most important voices in that should be the faculty’s,” he said.

He added that faculty members should also be involved in the development of policies that affect them and their colleagues, like those that govern their engagement with media outlets.

Chandra believes the lawsuit has implications for administrators at other public colleges and how they handle critique from employees. He hopes the message it sends is “You cannot be so thin-skinned as public officials that you retaliate when an employee criticizes you speaking in their private capacity.”

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