ATLANTA, September 15, 2009—The abuse of campus sexual harassment policies to punish dissenting professors has hit a new low at East Georgia College (EGC) in Swainsboro. Professor Thomas Thibeault made the mistake of pointing out—at a sexual harassment training seminar—that the school's sexual harassment policy contained no protection for the falsely accused. Two days later, in a Kafkaesque irony, Thibeault was fired by the college president for sexual harassment without notice, without knowing his accuser or the charges against him, and without a hearing. Thibeault turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
"If you were to write a novel about the abuse of sexual harassment regulations to get rid of a dissenter, you couldn't do better than the real-life story of Thomas Thibeault," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "Anyone with a modicum of respect for freedom of speech or simple fairness should be aghast at this blatant abuse of power by East Georgia College."
Thibeault's ordeal started shortly after August 5, 2009 when, during a faculty training session regarding the college's sexual harassment policy, he presented a scenario regarding a different 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 EGC President John Bryant Black's office. According to Thibeault's written account of the meeting, which was sent to Black and which Black has not disputed, Thibeault met with Black and Smith. Black told Thibeault that he "was a divisive force in the college at a time when the college needed unity" and that Thibeault must resign by 11:30 a.m. or be fired and have his "long history of sexual harassment ... made public." This unsubstantiated allegation took Thibeault by surprise. Black added that Thibeault would be escorted off campus by Police Chief Drew Durden and that Black had notified the local police that he was prepared to have Thibeault arrested for trespassing if he returned to campus. At no point was Thibeault presented with the charges against him or given any chance to present a defense. Refusing to resign, Thibeault understood that he was fired.
Most likely realizing that he had fired Thibeault without any of the due process mandated by Georgia's Board of Regents, Black then began attempting to justify Thibeault's firing 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." Meanwhile, Thibeault still had not been provided with any charges, he was still banned from campus, and he still appeared to be fired-with the "dismissal proceedings" occurring after the fact.
Then, on August 25, Black wrote Thibeault again, claiming for the first time that Thibeault had actually been suspended, not fired: "the committee's finding was that there is 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. Thibeault requested the charges on August 28 but has received no response. His lawyer also has inquired for weeks with no response.
"How can a public college professor in the United States be fired and kicked off campus by the president and police but, more than a month later, still have no idea why?" asked Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE's Individual Rights Defense Program. "Do Georgia's taxpayers know this is how their colleges are treating their professors?"
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. None of them has responded. Neither Black nor Smith has even bothered to comment on the discrepancies between Thibeault's account and Black's erratic letters.
"It is hard to imagine a worse failure of due process in this case," Kissel said. "Nobody knows what the actual allegations are because they are being kept secret, even from Thibeault himself. In the stunning absence of any charges, evidence, or hearings, it is clear that EGC has punished Professor Thibeault for speaking out against a flawed harassment policy."
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation's colleges and universities. FIRE's efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America are described at thefire.org.
Tell EGC to restore the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the Georgia Board of Regents. Write a letter to EGC and the Board of Regents here.
Adam Kissel, Director, Individual Rights Defense Program, FIRE: 215-717-3473, email@example.com
John Bryant Black, President, East Georgia College: 478-289-2027, firstname.lastname@example.org
Erroll B. Davis Jr., Chancellor, University System of Georgia: 404-656-2202, email@example.com