East Georgia College Abandons Mysterious ‘Sexual Harassment’ Charge for Lack of Evidence; Case Far from Over Due to New Rights Violations

By November 3, 2009

Under pressure from FIRE, East Georgia College (EGC) has withdrawn an unfounded charge of “sexual harassment” against Professor Thomas Thibeault, who had criticized the school’s sexual harassment policy. EGC President John B. Black dismissed Thibeault from campus and had him escorted from campus by police in August. Thibeault was treated as a dangerous criminal without a hearing or even knowing his accuser or the charges or evidence against him. Thibeault was finally notified on October 20 that he had been reinstated due to lack of evidence, but Black has now violated Thibeault’s free speech and due process rights again by issuing Thibeault a “reprimand” for unspecified “offensive” speech—again without presenting any notice, hearing, evidence, or witnesses.

This case is far from over, as Greg states in today’s press release. President Black again has failed to mention precisely what Thibeault has ever said or done; unfortunately, this is nothing new for Black. Thibeault’s ordeal started shortly after an August 5, 2009, faculty training session on the college’s sexual harassment policy during which he related a story about another professor and asked, “What provision is there in the sexual harassment policy to protect the accused against complaints which are malicious or, in this case, ridiculous?” Vice President for Legal Affairs Mary Smith, who was conducting the session, replied that there was no such provision to protect the accused, so Thibeault responded that “the policy itself is flawed.”

Two days later, Thibeault was summoned to President Black’s office. According to Thibeault’s written account of the meeting, which Black received but has never disputed, Black told Thibeault that he “was a divisive force in the college” and that Thibeault must resign by 11:30 a.m. or be fired and have his “long history of sexual harassment … made public.” Black added that Police Chief Drew Durden would escort Thibeault from campus and that he had notified the local police that Thibeault should be arrested for trespassing if he returned. Thibeault was never presented with any charges against him or given a chance to present a defense. Refusing to resign, Thibeault understood that he was fired, and Durden escorted him from campus.

Black also sent Thibeault a letter, dated August 7, notifying Thibeault that his contract would not be renewed for the 2010–2011 academic year.

Most likely realizing that he had violated college policy, Black soon began attempting to justify his treatment of Thibeault after the fact. On August 11, Black wrote Thibeault to say that since Thibeault had failed to resign by the deadline, “EGC has begun dismissal proceedings. … [A] faculty committee has been appointed to conduct an informal inquiry.” He then paradoxically wrote, “Their charge is to advise me whether or not dismissal proceedings shall be undertaken.” On August 25, Black wrote Thibeault again, claiming that Thibeault had actually been suspended, not terminated. Despite the lack of evidence, Black wrote that the reviewing committee found “sufficient evidence to support your suspension.” Black added that Thibeault was about to be terminated for sexual harassment, that the charges finally would be sent upon request, and that Thibeault finally could request a hearing.

FIRE outlined many of these shocking violations of due process and freedom of speech in a letter to University System of Georgia Chancellor Erroll B. Davis Jr. on August 27, with copies to Black and Smith. Davis did not respond.

Thibeault requested the charges and a hearing on August 28, but Black never fulfilled his promise and the Georgia Attorney General’s Office began to intervene. Black finally wrote on October 20 that “I have made the decision that the evidence does not warrant the charge of sexual harassment.”

Yet even then, Black compounded the violations of Thibeault’s rights, adding that the letter was a “reprimand to you for the use of offensive language and angry outbursts in your past interactions with your colleagues. This letter is further a warning that, if I receive any complaints … you may face further disciplinary action including termination.” Black also stated that “you must show better judgment and discretion in the future when engaging in discussions in the public work setting.” Once again, the reprimand failed to provide any evidence, notice, hearing, or witnesses.

Furthermore, on October 27, Vice President for Academic Affairs Tim Goodman began demanding that Thibeault sign a statement that “some of what he has said in the past has bothered some people” as a condition of his return to work. The statement also provided no evidence whatsoever for the claim that “some are fearful that he will lose his temper and do something rash,” a line which appears to be intended to disparage Thibeault and mar his reputation.

Month after month, EGC and President Black have utterly failed to meet their constitutional and moral obligation to respect freedom of speech, academic freedom, and due process. Black has punished protected speech without any due process whatsoever, and he has threatened further disciplinary action if someone else merely sends in a complaint. This is unacceptable—and far from over.

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Schools: East Georgia College