University settles free speech case for $120,000

By staff reports

After five years of federal litigation, WSU is paying former journalism professor David Demers $120,000 to drop his free-speech lawsuit against four university administrators.

The settlement was reached after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Demers’ “7-Step Plan” to improve the quality of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication was speech protected under the First Amendment.

The appeals court rejected WSU’s argument – that professors shouldn’t have full freedom of speech when speaking in their “professional,” or service-related, roles.

“I am extremely pleased with the settlement,” Demers said in a press release by the American Civil Liberties Union. “It sends a strong message to university administrators that those who intend to violate professors’ free-speech rights will be held accountable.”

According to the lawsuit, which Demers filed in 2009, university administrators retaliated against him in 2007 after he urged them to seek national accreditation for the Murrow School (now the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication).

The plan he submitted also entailed providing a stronger voice for non-tenured faculty and separating the school’s speech studies program from its journalism and mass communication programs.

“The court ruled that, when it comes to issues involving teaching and research, professors have the right to criticize administrators and offer their own programs, plans and ideas without fear of reprisal,” Demers said in the press release.

According to Demers, some faculty and administrators denounced his recommendation to separate the programs. The latter ordered an internal audit of Demers and Marquette Books, his part-time publishing business.

Although the audit found no evidence of criminal or ethical wrong-doing, it concluded that Demers had violated some university rules – a conclusion Demers disputed. According to the lawsuit, university administrators then denied him raises, a chance for promotion and leadership roles on committees.

In 2011, a federal district court judge in Spokane sided with WSU President Elson S. Floyd’s administration, citing a controversial 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Garcetti v. Ceballos) which held that public employees have no free-speech rights when speaking in their official roles.

Demers quickly appealed in the 9th Circuit Court, where Judge William A. Fletcher ruled in his favor in September 2013. Fletcher ruled that academic freedom protects professors when they speak on “issues related to teaching or research.”

Demers resigned from WSU in December 2012. Demers filed bankruptcy in spring 2014 with legal fees of $350,000 for his case. According to the settlement agreement, which the U.S. Bankruptcy Court approved on Oct. 23, all of the settlement funds are being used to pay those fees.

The university’s executive director of communications, Kathy Barnard, could not be reached Sunday night for comment.

WSU is ranked as a “red light” university by the nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) because “it has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.

One of several policies that FIRE criticizes is the university’s implementation of “limited public forum areas” – also known as free speech zones. On the Pullman campus, these areas are limited to the Terrell Mall and public sidewalks adjacent to public roads.

WSU defines its free speech zones as “those areas of each campus that the university has chosen to be open as places for expressive activities protected by the first amendment, subject to reasonable time, place or manner restrictions.”

Per university policy, an individual or group must notify administrators or campus police at least 14 days before demonstrating in a campus free speech zone.

Reporting by Chad Sokol