Washington State U. Agrees to Pay $120,000 to Professor in First Amendment Retaliation Suit

November 5, 2014

Torch readers may remember the case of former Washington State University (WSU) professor David Demers, who sued the university in 2009, claiming it violated his First Amendment rights by retaliating against him for distributing a pamphlet containing recommendations to improve WSU’s communications program and excerpts from a book he was writing.

In September 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that Demers’ speech was protected under the First Amendment, and the appellate court issued a new, even more speech-protective opinion in February of this year. As I wrote for The Torch last year, the case has established an important precedent in an area of law where there is currently a circuit split: the question of whether the Supreme Court’s holding in Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006) precludes a First Amendment retaliation claim based on speech made “pursuant to” a university professor’s “official duties.” (For background on that issue, check out FIRE’s past coverage of the case.)

According to a press release from the American Civil Liberties Union released yesterday, WSU has now agreed to pay $120,000 to settle the case. Per the agreement, the money will go towards Demers’ legal fees, which have added up to $350,000. Demers commented on the outcome of the case:

I am extremely pleased with the settlement. … It sends a strong message to university administrators that those who intend to violate professors’ free-speech rights will be held accountable. … The court ruled that, when it comes to issues involving teaching and research, professors have the right to criticize administrators and offer their own programs, plans and ideas without fear of reprisal.

FIRE commends Demers for his determination in fighting for his free speech rights over the past five years. Through FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, and with the help of professors like Demers and students who are willing to work to defend freedom of expression, we hope colleges and universities across the country will soon get the message that they must not restrict or punish constitutionally protected speech.

Schools:  Washington State University