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Tennessee Tech Professors Lose Speech, Due Process Case

December 5, 2022

Two professors at Tennessee Tech University who sued the institution for disciplining them for putting up a flier on campus lost their case last week. The flier—which the professors said was a parody—criticized the faculty adviser for Turning Point USA on campus, who also supported a local school board’s decision not to change the name of a sports mascot that many Native Americans and allies found offensive. The two professors who made the flier, Julia Gruber, associate professor of German, and Andrew Smith, senior instructor of English, each experienced several sanctions following the incident, including being ineligible for raises for a year and not being able to supervise student groups or participate in study abroad activities or faculty-led trips for two years.

Tennessee Tech said the professors had violated a university conduct policy on fostering “diversity, fair treatment and respect for all,” but the professors sued in federal court in Tennessee in 2021, arguing that they were actually trying to promote diversity and that they were never given a chance to fully defend themselves. They claimed violations of their First Amendment and due process rights. But Chief U.S. District Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw said in an opinion issued in the university’s favor that Tennessee Tech had allowed Gruber and Smith to appeal its decision, and that its denial of that appeal had been a “considered decision,” even if it hadn’t involved a hearing and full examination of all the evidence Gruber and Smith presented. (Crenshaw’s reasoning suggested that a hearing would be required for terminating a tenured employee, but not for less serious discipline.) Crenshaw also said that the professors hadn’t presented sufficient evidence of First Amendment retaliation to overcome the university’s qualified-immunity defense.

The university said in a statement that it’s “pleased with the outcome of the case and looks forward to pursuing its educational mandate and mission to put students first and deliver enduring education.” Smith said in a Facebook post he shared with Inside Higher Ed that the decision was “devastating & infuriating” and “When you lose, it is easy to feel defeated. But I don’t currently have the luxury of giving up or just ‘accepting’ the results. We are exploring our options to continue the struggle. I expect it will be in the news within a few days.” Both Gruber and Smith remain employees of Tennessee Tech.

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