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FIRE sues college for ignoring records requests about its firing of Black Lives Matter advocate

By January 4, 2018

  • Saying it was “inundated” with complaints, New Jersey’s Essex County College terminated an adjunct professor after she defended a Black Lives Matter event in a segment on Fox News.
  • After 174 days and five extensions of its deadline, Essex has failed to produce a single record in response to FIRE’s public records request for information about the professor’s firing.

NEWARK, N.J., Jan. 4, 2018 — The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education filed a lawsuit yesterday in the Superior Court of New Jersey against Essex County College for ignoring multiple open records requests in violation of state law. FIRE requested information after an adjunct professor was fired following an appearance on a Fox News segment in which she defended Black Lives Matter.

“This lawsuit is not just about a public institution ignoring its obligation under state law to release certain information to the public,” said FIRE Staff Attorney Brynne Madway. “This suit is also about Essex County College’s responsibility to be transparent about its termination of an adjunct professor who simply voiced her opinions publicly.”

On July 13, FIRE requested information under the New Jersey Open Public Records Act about the questionable termination of Lisa Durden, an adjunct professor at Essex, two days after her June 6 appearance on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” On the program, Durden debated Carlson on whether it was appropriate for a Black Lives Matter group to hold an event and request that white people not attend.  

On June 23, Essex President Anthony Munroe issued a statement about the matter, saying the college was “immediately inundated with feedback … expressing frustration, concern and even fear” about Durden’s views — even though Essex was not mentioned during the appearance. Munroe acknowledged that Durden “was in no way claiming to represent the views and beliefs of the College,” but nevertheless asserted a “right to select employees who represent the institution appropriately,” and terminated her employment.

For more than a month, Essex ignored FIRE’s initial request — as well as a subsequent request — for information about the feedback the college allegedly received. After receiving a letter from FIRE Director of Litigation Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon, Essex finally responded, asking for the first of five eventual requests for extensions of time to respond to FIRE’s records requests. In November, Essex said it “anticipated” being able to provide a response by Nov. 20.

FIRE hasn’t heard from Essex since.

“Here’s a New Year’s resolution for Essex: Follow state law,” said Madway. “The public deserves to know how Essex administrators handled reaction to a professor’s participation in a political debate.”

Ari Cohn, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, analyzed the First Amendment issues involved in Durden’s firing and said that even if Essex was “inundated” with complaints, its administrators violated her constitutional rights by firing her.

“The law under the First Amendment is clear: A public college cannot terminate a professor simply because she engaged, in a personal capacity, in a debate about matters of public concern and some were offended by her perspective,” he said.

Bruce S. Rosen of McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen & Carvelli, P.C. in Florham Park, N.J. is serving as co-counsel in the suit.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending liberty, freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom, legal equality, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses.

CONTACT:

Daniel Burnett, Communications Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; media@thefire.org

Schools: Essex County College Cases: Essex County College — Stand Up For Speech Lawsuit FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project