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Adjunct Faculty Analysis Deemed a Public Concern

CHICAGO (CN) - A woman who was fired after criticizing her community college's treatment of adjunct faculty may have a free-speech case, the 7th Circuit ruled.

Robin Meade was working last year as an adjunct professor of business at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Ill. In August 2013, Meade wrote to the League for Innovation in the Community College about the allegedly poor way in which Moraine Valley treated adjunct faculty.

She signed the letter in her capacity as president of the Moraine Valley Adjunct Faculty Organization, a union for the school's adjunct faculty, which teaches 60 percent of the courses at the college.

On union letterhead, Meade claimed Moraine's policy of not paying adjuncts for hourly work outside of class directly harmed students, because adjunct faculty received no compensation for tutoring work.

Meade said the college treated adjuncts as a "disposable resource" and "separate, lower class of people," as quoted on the blog InsideHigherEd.com.

She also wrote that the "chilling effect" from low compensation and lack of job security or benefits "affects adjunct performance and erodes the confidence the idyllic atmosphere and beautiful buildings and grounds strive to project."

When Moraine Valley fired Meade two days later, it explicitly cited the letter as the reason for her termination, and threatened to prosecute her for criminal trespass if she set foot on campus again.

Meade then sued the college for retaliation and violating her First Amendment right to free speech.

Though a federal judge found that Meade could not support a First Amendment claim because her letter did not address a matter of public interest, the 7th Circuit disagreed and revived the case Thursday.

"We have no trouble concluding that Meade's letter discussed several matters of public concern," Judge Diane Wood wrote for a three-judge panel. "In fact, the letter contained almost no content personal to Meade."

Wood noted that the lower court had focused on Meade's adjunct status, noting that any change in the school's policy would personally affect her.

"Yet we have never held that speech that is partly about a matter of public interest but also touches on private concerns is without constitutional protection," the ruling states.

Indeed, Meade's letter emphasizes how the treatment of adjunct faculty affects student performance, such as the failure to compensate adjuncts for time spent tutoring students, without highlighting her personal experience, the court found.

"It is difficult to see how any part of this discussion could be considered purely personal to Meade, or of zero interest to the public," Wood wrote. "The people who attend Moraine Valley, along with their families and others who live in the area, no doubt want to know if this practice poses a threat to student performance."

Moraine Valley likewise may have violated Meade's due-process rights by firing her without notice and without giving her an opportunity to contest the decision, the court found.

This is especially true given that Illinois law provides an exception to presumption that an employer may fire an employee at-will if the employee is hired for a fixed period of time, the court said.

"The course schedule on Meade's employment agreement provided specific starting and ending dates for her teaching responsibilities and told her what she would be paid for doing so," Wood wrote. "This was sufficient to provide Meade with an expectation of employment at Moraine Valley during the specified time, and thus a cognizable property interest in working at the college during that period."

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