Two professors at Tennessee Tech University are suing the institution in federal court for punishing them over a flier they posted on campus last winter. The flier, which the professors say was a clear parody, criticized a faculty colleague who advised the campus Turning Point USA chapter and who supported a local school board’s decision not to change the name of a middle school sports mascot that many Native Americans and allies found offensive. The colleague said the flier was threatening and reported the two professors who posted it to the university, which investigated. The two professors were found to have violated a university conduct policy on fostering “diversity, fair treatment and respect for all.” They disagree with that finding, saying that they were trying to promote diversity and respect. They also say they were never given an opportunity to defend themselves during or after the investigation.
The professors, Julia Gruber, associate professor of German, and Andrew Smith, senior instructor of English, were given a host of sanctions, including not being able to supervise student groups or participate in study abroad activities or faculty-led trips for two years. Gruber says she had a grant revoked, and the lawsuit says the sanctions generally “strike at the heart of who Dr. Gruber and Professor Smith are as educators.” Gruber and Smith are ineligible for salary increases for a year and must attend meetings to ensure that “personal grievances” aren’t brought into the classroom, according to the lawsuit. They’ll also be observed while teaching and have been warned that further violations of university policy could result in their termination. The lawsuit accuses the university of retaliating against the professors for exercising their rights under the First Amendment and of denial of their due process rights.
Tennessee Tech had no immediate comment on the lawsuit. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has reached out to Tennessee Tech on the professors’ behalf. Zach Greenberg, a lawyer with FIRE, said in statement that the “right to criticize public officials and political groups lies at the heart of what the First Amendment protects. Faculty should not have to resort to litigation against their universities to safeguard their constitutional rights.”