A Response to Cal State–Fullerton

By June 5, 2008

FIRE received an e-mail today from Paula Selleck, Senior Communications Officer at California State University-Fullerton, asserting that we inaccurately reported that Wendy Gonaver had been fired by the university for refusing to sign the state’s loyalty oath for public employees. According to Selleck, Gonaver was never fired, because she had not been hired in the first place:

She never completed the hiring process at Cal State Fullerton last August and did not begin teaching. Signing the loyalty oath is part of the hiring process. Without it, she could not begin work.

While Fullerton’s desire to avoid referring to the unseemly incident as a "firing" is understandable, the facts of the case demonstrate that Gonaver had been hired by the university and was in fact fired. As I wrote in a response e-mail to Selleck:

According to the information that we have, Gonaver was in fact fired after her appointment as lecturer at Cal State Fullerton. The following excerpt from the original Los Angeles Times article on this case indicates as much:

But the day before class was scheduled to begin, her appointment as a lecturer abruptly ended over just the kind of issue that might have figured in her course. She lost the job because she did not sign a loyalty oath swearing to "defend" the U.S. and California constitutions "against all enemies, foreign and domestic."

Further, the same article contains the following information:

For Gonaver, the oath came up unexpectedly.

She was offered the job at Fullerton teaching two classes last fall, Introduction to American Studies and Introduction to Intercultural Women’s Studies. She received two appointment letters and signed a contract. When she attended an orientation session for new faculty, she heard of the oath for the first time.

Given that Gonaver received two appointment letters, signed a contract with the university, and participated in an orientation session for new faculty, it would seem fair to characterize the university’s ultimate decision to terminate her employment as a firing. It is simply inaccurate to say that the university had not hired her by the time she learned of the oath requirement. This becomes even clearer when one takes into consideration the fact that she lost her appointment the day before classes were to start.

While I understand that under California state law the loyalty oath is a condition of public employment, the circumstances surrounding this case show that Gonaver had been hired by the university to begin teaching in the fall semester and had every expectation of starting on the first day of class. Thus, the university’s decision to remove her from her appointment is most accurately deemed a "firing."

Both the Times article (in the headline) and People for the American Way, who represented Gonaver, use the word "fired" to describe what happened to Gonaver. Moreover, Fullerton’s semantic argument does nothing to negate the tremendous harm perpetrated upon her, as she has lost a year’s worth of teaching time. Therefore, the university simply does not have a leg to stand on in this case.

As we at FIRE like to say, schools often have a hard time defending in public that which they do in private. Hopefully, my letter will help disabuse Fullerton of any revisionist notions it may be clinging to in the wake of its shameful treatment of Wendy Gonaver.