‘There’s the constant threat of further discipline and this is the sort of measure that has a chilling effect on speech in general among faculty members,’ attorney says
Two history professors threatened with termination after they questioned use of grant money to fund social justice initiatives at their college have filed a federal lawsuit against the Kern Community College District.
The scholars allege the district violated their right to free speech and academic freedom as well as threatened further punishment for criticizing social justice spending.
In their complaint, professors Matthew Garrett and Erin Miller argue that district officials knowingly violated their First Amendment rights when administrators investigated and disciplined them for “publicly criticizing how the district chooses to spend its money.”
The lawsuit also argues officials took actions against them “to assuage the feelings of and bow to pressure brought by other faculty members who disagreed with [their] political viewpoints.”
“Basically, what’s at issue in this case is whether a public community college or public community college district can investigate and discipline a faculty member for publicly questioning or criticizing the way grant money is spent by the district,” the professors’ attorney, Arthur Willner, told The College Fix in a recent interview.
In a statement to The College Fix, a district spokesperson said the “long-standing practice of the Kern Community College District is that we do not comment on matters that are currently being litigated in the courts.”
Litigation three years in the making
The lawsuit was filed March 25, but the situation dates back to September 12, 2019. It was then that Garrett gave a public lecture titled “A Tale of Two Protests: Free Speech and the Intellectual Origins of Campus Censorship” to a standing-room only audience at Bakersfield College.
During the lecture, Garrett discussed campus censorship in relation to cultural Marxism and social justice ideology.
Near the end of his one-hour speech, for which Miller had delivered a 10-minute introduction, Garrett argued that grant funds were being used by certain faculty members to push a partisan “social justice” agenda at the college and urged for an investigation into the grant expenditures.
Two of the Bakersfield professors Garrett identified as recipients of grant funds for social justice activities are Andrew Bond and Oliver Rosales; both are associated with the college’s Social Justice Institute.
About a month later, according to the lawsuit, Professors Bond and Rosales filed human resource complaints with the district against Garrett and Miller around the same time Miller had filed public records requests seeking information on various grants.
Willner told The College Fix he and his clients have yet to see the actual complaints filed by Bond and Rosales as the district has refused to release them, claiming they’re private.
The lawsuit also alleges that “rather than serve as a neutral mediator, recognizing the First Amendment issues at stake,” the college’s vice president of instruction asked Garrett to stop requesting public records about the grants and to take down the publicly posted video of his lecture.
During his lecture, Garrett had claimed that a $20,000 grant to the Bakersfield College Foundation was being used to fund Kern Sol News, a youth-led media outlet that publishes “pro-social justice” and “pro-Rosales articles.”
He also claimed the grant was used to pay Bond $2,100 in 2019 and Rosales $8,400 in 2018 and $7,100 in 2019 for “social justice” work.
“I think [Rosales] gets more reassigned time, money stipend, than anyone on campus, pretty much, to do social justice activism,” Garrett had said. “Partisan politics paid for by taxpayer dollars is not okay.”
Garrett went on to reiterate his criticisms of how grant money was being spent by the college in a 30-minute radio interview on Dec. 3, 2019.
Shortly after, Bakersfield’s Vice President of Instruction informed Garrett and Miller that she was discontinuing the informal resolution process, blaming the radio interview, the lawsuit alleges.
Bond and Rosales also filed addendums to their complaints.
In August 2020, the district — at the behest of Kern Community College District Chancellor Thomas Burke and others — launched an investigation to determine whether Garrett and Miller had engaged in unprofessional conduct in violation of Kern Community College District policies.
Burke and Christopher Hine, general counsel of the district, are named as defendants in the lawsuit.
Hine had issued an “administrative determination” report that concluded the criticism Garrett and Miller voiced during the September 2019 event over how grant funds were being allocated constituted “unprofessional conduct.”
In his report, Hine threatened Garrett and Miller with further investigation and discipline, up to and including termination, claiming both had made “misleading” accusations of “financial improprieties” and misappropriation against Bond and Rosales.
The lawsuit also alleges Hine had classified Bond and Rosales as “whistleblowers” and, by doing so, further restricted how Garrett and Miller could respond as any efforts to defend themselves could be construed and accordingly punished as retaliation.
Willner argued that the district’s granting Bond and Rosales “whistleblower protection” was “simply another layer of the warnings” being sent to Garrett and Miller, all of which “just feeds into the problem of self-censorship.”
Willner told The College Fix that Hine’s report “completely mischaracterized” his clients’ comments.
“My clients were not suggesting that there were any financial improprieties or malfeasance or anything like that. They were simply questioning how the money was being spent,” Willner said.
“Why would the district distort what Garrett and Miller were saying in order to find that they had engaged in unprofessional conduct?”
“In my view, the inescapable conclusion is that … the district didn’t want to shut out the complaining faculty members entirely and felt that they had to ‘throw them a bone’ in some way and find that at least some portion of their complaints had some merit,” Willner said.
The lawsuit states that Garrett and Miller are suing to hold district officials “accountable for the violations of their rights to free speech and academic freedom and to help bring about the changes needed to end the threat to freedom of expression at the Kern Community College District and on the Bakersfield College campus.”
Willner said that while there’s the constant threat of further discipline, “Dr. Garrett and Professor Miller have the resources and the determination to fight against what they see as an improper restriction on First Amendment rights.”
The case’s first hearing scheduled for August 23.
Willner said he believes that during the discovery process, they will be able to finally get a copy of the complaints filed against Garrett and Miller “to see just how extensive they were in terms of what Professors Bond and Rosales were complaining about.”
Their complaints, Willner said, “really speak to the larger issue of how the First Amendment is viewed on campuses these days, because the entire speech by Dr. Garrett was what I would call ‘core protected speech’ under the First Amendment, and the idea that Professors Bond and Rosales or anyone else could look at this speech and say ‘You, Dr. Garrett, should not be allowed to say those things in public,’ is astounding.”
Willner said that, ideally, the federal court will rule that Garrett’s and Miller’s speech was protected under the First Amendment.
“Hopefully, that’s the ruling that we’re going to get, and that can only serve to further free speech rights on campuses across the country,” he said.
Editor’s note: A day after publication, Professor Bond provided a 45-minute video rebuttal to Garrett’s and Miller’s claims. Bond said:
The complaints filed were never about trying to silence Dr. Garrett and Professor Miller. In fact, I have no problem with most of the content in the talk. The issue is that Dr. Garrett and Professor Miller misrepresent the sources of funds and their uses in order to create a narrative of misuse of taxpayer funds and inappropriate partisanship tied to grants.
The above video explains things clearly enough and points out the fact that the talk was rife with inaccuracies and falsehoods, and Dr. Garrett never bothered to reach out to people with knowledge of grants in order to ensure his talk was factually accurate. Garrett conflated funding sources, misstated and misrepresented their actual uses, doing so in a public talk in front of students, colleagues, and the general public without regard for the facts or the reputations of those he named in the talk.