Faculty Member in Michigan Dismissed for Seemingly Innocuous Facebook Post

By July 13, 2011

An adjunct professor at Mid Michigan Community College (MMCC) has been let go over a Facebook post he wrote regarding a student’s concern about passing his course. Despite the generalized nature of the Facebook post and the lack of detail it contained, former adjunct professor Jason Liptow was told he had broken confidentiality rules and that his contract would not be renewed.

Liptow’s case began when one of his students, who had missed a good deal of class time, emailed him in the last week of classes to ask what he could do to pass the course. Liptow came to realize that the student had missed "at least 70 percent of classes," and that of the three open-book, take-home exams he had taken, the student had failed each one. Liptow therefore emailed the student to let him know that there was nothing he could do at that point. He also mentioned the situation in a Facebook status update (while refraining from using the student’s name) and warned others not to let this happen to them. His post read: "Student emailed me wanting to know how he could pass the class, he hadn’t been there and failed three open-book tests."

That was it. There was nothing derogatory about the student in Liptow’s post, and there was no mention of the specifics of the course or any other level of detail that would give the college reason to invoke rules of confidentiality.

Yet it was apparently enough for MMCC to decide not to renew Liptow’s contract, in spite of his four years of service as an adjunct professor with nary a prior complaint or write-up. School officials cited his failure to abide by confidentiality ruleseven though, interestingly, MMCC did not have a Facebook or social networking policy at the time of the decision not to rehire (the school is apparently in the process of drafting such a policy). So, Liptow had been provided no notice that his innocent post was off-limits.

Besides, adverse employment action against a non-tenured faculty member, when that action is due to the faculty member’s protected expression, violates the faculty member’s First Amendment rights. This includes decisions not to rehire non-tenured faculty members who have a reasonable expectation of being rehired. See Mt. Healthy City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 283 (1977) ("[A teacher's] claims under the First and Fourteenth Amendments are not defeated by the fact that he [does] not have tenure.").

As a result of his dismissal, Liptow has filed suit against MMCC alleging unfair labor practices, seeking back pay and reinstatement. His case was heard before an administrative law judge in the Michigan Employment Relations Commission in May, with hopes of a decision by September.

As far as punishment of faculty for engaging in protected speech (and indeed, rather tame, innocuous speech) goes, this case is noteworthy. (It is also vaguely reminiscent of the case of Professor Gloria Gadsden at East Stroudsburg University, who was suspended for obviously humorous Facebook comments about her students that the university labeled threatening.) Professors engage in this kind of speech all the time, and given the dearth of details in Liptow’s writing that could reasonably give rise to confidentiality concerns, it seems MMCC does not have much of a leg to stand on. Rest assured we will be monitoring this case to see how it comes out.