BC professors allege free speech violations in lawsuit against college district

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Two Bakersfield College history professors are suing the Kern Community College District for allegedly violating their right to free speech.

The suit filed by Matthew Garrett and Erin Miller says the district bowed to pressure from other faculty members in threatening them with disciplinary action, including termination, following an investigation into comments made at a public lecture in 2019.

It names as defendants former district Chancellor Thomas J. Burke and general counsel Christopher W. Hine. The latter ordered an investigation into the professors’ comments regarding the use of grant funds and signed “administrative determinations” disciplining them, according to the suit filed in federal court in Fresno.

“A public college or community college district has no business investigating, much less disciplining, a faculty member for publicly criticizing how the district chooses to spend its money,” says the suit filed by Los Angeles-based attorney Arthur I. Willner.

District officials on Thursday said it’s their longstanding practice not to comment on matters that are being litigated.

In April 2019, stickers that said “smash cultural Marxism” and other right-of-center viewpoints were anonymously posted around the Bakersfield College campus and were removed by campus authorities.

The incident stirred a heated debate. Students and faculty associated with the Social Justice Institute called the stickers “racist” and “vandalism” while Garrett questioned whether the stickers were a protest against the use of taxpayer funds to advance a one-sided political agenda, according to the suit. It says Garrett and Miller were accused of enabling white supremacism.

A formal public debate was arranged, but two professors associated with the Social Justice Institute — Andrew Bond and Oliver Rosales — refused to participate, the suit says.

On Sept. 12, 2019, Garrett gave a public lecture on campus in which he discussed Marxism, free speech and campus censorship. Miller gave the introduction.

A few minutes of the speech were devoted to the spending of grant funds on what Garrett said he believed was the promotion of a partisan political agenda, according to the suit. He identified faculty including Bond and Rosales as receiving funds that were being directed to further such an agenda.

“Neither Dr. Garrett in his speech nor Professor Miller in her introduction at any time accused Bond or Rosales or anyone else at Bakersfield College of misappropriating these funds or of personally enriching themselves or of any illegal conduct,” the suit says.

In October 2019, Miller filed a public records request regarding various grants. That same month, it’s believed Bond and Rosales filed complaints against the plaintiffs over comments made at the lecture, the suit says.

College administrators tried to resolve the issue, but instead of serving as a neutral mediator instead asked the plaintiffs to stop filing public records requests about the grants and to remove a publicly posted video of the lecture, according to the suit.

In December 2019, Garrett gave a radio interview in which he criticized the way Bakersfield College faculty were distributing grant funds. A few days later, Garrett and Miller were informed the resolution process had been discontinued.

It’s believed that in the next month Bond and Rosales filed addendums to the their complaints, the suit says, and in early August 2020 Hine, Burke and possibly other district officials referred the complaints for investigation.

Two months later, Hine issued an administrative determination that, among other things, found the plaintiffs made statements implying Rosales and Bond improperly misused grant funds to finance various social justice platforms, and by doing so the plaintiffs had engaged in unprofessional conduct, according to the suit.

The determination threatened “appropriate remedial action,” including termination, if there were further violations, according to the suit.

The suit says the district’s findings were false.

“Plaintiffs are informed and believe and thereby allege that defendants…were and are fully aware that (plaintiffs’) speech on Sept. 12, 2019 did not meet the elements of defamation and was fully protected under the First Amendment,” the suit says.

“Defendants nonetheless deliberately mischaracterized plaintiffs’ speech as unprotected defamation in violation of their First Amendment rights in order to placate or ‘throw a bone’ to Rosales and Bond so that they wouldn’t feel their complaints had been effectively dismissed in their entirety as they should have been,” it says.

The district’s actions harmed the plaintiffs professionally, the suit says. It seeks unspecified damages for emotional distress, economic injury, irreparable harm and attorneys’ fees.

A hearing is scheduled Aug. 23.

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