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Lawsuit Accuses WSU's Murrow College of Violating Journalism Professor's First Amendment Rights
Sunday, 15 November 2009 22:42
by Walter M. Brasch. Ph.D.

A Washington State University journalism professor Wednesday (Oct. 28) filed a federal lawsuit against four administrators at his university who, he says, violated his First Amendment rights when they punished him for proposing a "7-Step Plan" to improve the quality of the unaccredited undergraduate mass communication programs in the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication.

Tenured associate professor David K. Demers filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Spokane. The defendants are Erica Austin, former interim director and dean of the Murrow program; Warwick Bayly, interim provost and executive vice president; Erich Lear, former dean of the College of Liberal Arts; and Frances McSweeney, vice provost for faculty affairs.

“The pattern of actions taken by the defendants demonstrates a concerted effort to punish Dr. Demers for creating his 7-Step Plan and for criticizing the Murrow College administrators,” the complaint states. “Publication of the 7-Step Plan was a substantial and motivating factor in the punishment Dr. Demers received from the University ... .” (Note:The full complaint is available at www.Academic-Freedom.info )

Prepared by Demers’ attorney, Judith Endejan of the Seattle law firm of Graham & Dunn, the complaint asserts that Austin justified low performance reviews by falsely accusing Demers of canceling classes in 2007 and 2008. She claimed Demers violated university policies, serious charges to level against a faculty member. She then subjected Demers to an “internal audit” conducted by a WSU internal auditor whose sister worked for Austin in the Murrow office. The complaint contends that the auditor had a “patent conflict of interest.” The audit reiterated the false charges of class cancellation but found no ethical violations.

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The lawsuit also contends that Austin punished Demers in his 2008 annual review for writing a book which questions the commitment that WSU and other universities have given to free speech rights of faculty and students and to solving social problems. The book, titledThe Ivory Tower of Babel, also chronicles events at WSU leading up to the lawsuit. According to the complaint, these events, such as unwarranted internal audits, low performance reviews based upon false charges and the failure to correct them, demonstrates a pattern by the administration to silence or get rid of a professor who challenged them.

Demers also filed a tort claim with the Washington state Office of Financial Management, claiming he was “mobbed” by administrators and some faculty. Workplace mobbing is a form of collective behavior that social scientists say is the nonviolent adult counterpart to “playground bullying” and is prevalent at places where employees have job protection through tenure or other means.The claim seeks $2 million in damages for emotional distress and other torts.

The 7-Step Plan was first formally presented to university officials in January 2007. It recommended that the Murrow program hire a dean with substantial professional experience, seek national accreditation for the mass communication programs through the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, give more power and authority in the program to professional faculty, and remove the communication studies sequence from the program. Demers offered to donate $100,000 of his own money to the university if it implemented the plan.

“Dr. Austin and many of the faculty were angry when I opposed their ideas for changing the Murrow program and presented the 7-Step Plan directly to the provost and president of the university,” Demers says. “Many were especially angry about my call to remove the communication studies sequence, which has a lot of clout but few students in the Murrow College. But only three of the top 30 Ph.D.-granting mass communication programs in the United States have a communication studies sequence.

Demers tried for years to get the university to seek national accreditation for the programs in print journalism, broadcasting, public relations and advertising. Accreditation is the single best indicator of the quality of a program, he said, but Murrow faculty have repeatedly rejected it. The University of Washington and Western Washington University both have accredited print journalism programs.

“Edward R. Murrow would roll over in his grave if he could see what has happened to the programs that bear his name,” Demers says. “Historically, the Murrow program has been one of the most poorly funded and staffed programs of its size in the United States. We don’t even have a formal program in photography or visual communication.” Murrow, one of the most respected names in the history of broadcast journalism, attended Washington State College (as it was called then) in the late 1920s and graduated in 1930.

Demers tried to work with the WSU administration to deal with the false charges against him. In one meeting with Dean Lear, he conceded the accusation that Demers had canceled classes was false. But the administration refused to the correct the error, accusing Demers, instead, of “failing to hold classes.”

At another meeting,Provost Bayly also refused to set the record straight.

“It’s an ivory tower of Babel,” Demers said. “I have all of the quizzes and attendance records for those classes to prove I canceled no classes, but they repeatedly refused to look at the evidence.”

The lawsuit contends that Austin’s refusal “to correct provably false statements in three annual reviews (about class cancellation) demonstrates continued retaliatory intent, as does the internal audit ... .Dr. Austin’s ultimate impermissible goal, sustained and condoned by Drs. Lear, McSweeney and Bayly, was to force Dr. Demers to resign or to be terminated by WSU for contrived ‘incompetence’ to rid the Murrow College of an outspoken professor who expressed unpopular views on matters of public concern.”

“All I’ve ever wanted was an apology and the official record corrected,” Demers says. “But many attorneys tell me university bureaucracies never apologize when they make mistakes. They would rather spend taxpayers’ money. Unfortunately, the taxpayers, not the administrators, are the ones who will be penalized in this case. But this case is not about the money. It’s about protecting the First Amendment rights of faculty.”

Ironically, in summer 2009, after a new dean with a strong professional background replaced Austin, the Murrow College began taking steps to implement parts of Demers’ 7-Step Plan.

“Stifling Dr. Demers’ speech regarding the 7-Step Plan promoted no state interest, such as workplace efficiency or avoiding workplace disruption,” the lawsuit states. “In fact, since the Murrow College was created and a new dean hired for it, WSU has implemented or sought to implement five parts of the 7-Step Plan, thereby demonstrating how the 7-Step Plan actually promoted the state’s interest.”

The lawsuit asks the court to expunge the annual reviews and the internal audit, make appropriate salary adjustments, pay reasonable attorney fees, and assess unspecified punitive damages. In a similar case recently in Oregon, a jury granted a public school teacher nearly $1 million in damages.
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