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Professor settles First Amendment lawsuit with University of Kentucky, UK to pay $620,000

In August 2017, Dr. Raynor Mullins, a faculty member at the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry, filed suit against UK alleging that the university violated his First Amendment rights by retaliating against him after he criticized Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed Medicaid plan. Earlier this month, Mullins and UK settled the lawsuit for $620,000.

Mullins has had a long professional career at the University of Kentucky. He served as chair of the UK Department of Community Dentistry from 1974–1988 and later as chief of the Division of Dental Public Health from 1994–2004. Since 2006, Mullins was employed as a post-retirement member of the Emeritus Faculty of the UK College of Dentistry.

On June 22, 2016, Gov. Bevin announced new changes to Kentucky’s Medicaid plan, called the “Kentucky HEALTH Waiver Proposal.” Mullins’ decades of experience in public health prompted him to draft a comment on the governor’s proposal. Mullins and four other dentists submitted the comment, in which they criticized Gov. Bevin’s proposal, during the public 30-day comment period. Mullins made clear that he was speaking as a private person, not on behalf of the UK or the UK College of Dentistry.

The complaint alleges that after the Mullins submitted a comment, “Governor Bevin and/or officials in his administration . . . communicated their displeasure with Dr. Mullins’ comments and pressured Defendant Birdwhitsell [UK’s Vice President of External Affairs] to retaliate against Dr. Mullins.” The complaint further alleges that when the academic year started again in September, the dean of the UK College of Dentistry, Stephanos Kyrkanides, told Mullins that it was a bad idea “to piss the Governor off” and further warned Mullins that as a state employee, he works for the governor.

Later that fall, the federal government opened a comment period because it was considering whether to approve the Kentucky HEALTH Waiver Proposal. In October 2016, Mullins and his four colleagues submitted a comment to the federal government, again critical of the proposal.

The complaint alleges that after Mullins submitted his comment to the federal government, Dean Kyrkanides told colleagues at the UK College of Dentistry that they were no longer allowed to work with Mullins on grant funded projects, and allegedly asked colleagues to stop speaking with Mullins. Later in the academic year, Kyrkanides directed departmental staff to not renew Mullins’ faculty reappointment for the 2017–2018 academic year, and in January 2017, Mullins was notified he would not be re-hired.

If the allegations put forth by Mullins are true, it seems likely that the UK College of Dentistry retaliated against him after he engaged in speech protected by the First Amendment. Mullins, a public health expert, submitted a formal comment to the government critical of a proposal that would, in his view, harm public health. Any adverse action taken by UK, whether or not it was at the behest of Gov. Bevin or employees in his office, because of Mullins’ constitutionally protected expression to comment on matters of public concern is a textbook violation of the First Amendment.  

Institutions of higher education, as well as government officials, would be wise to ensure that they are not in the business of censorship. As UK has found out to the tune of $620,000, censorship is quite an expensive business.

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