ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CN) – The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska filed multiple suits Thursday against Alaska, the newly elected Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his chief of staff on behalf of three former state workers.
The ACLU claims that Dunleavy violated the state and federal constitutions when he fired Assistant Attorney General Libby Bakalar, Alaska Psychiatric Institute Director of Psychiatry Anthony Blanford and fellow staff psychiatrist John Bellville upon taking office in December.
All three complaints maintain that the state violated the First Amendment and the free-speech sections of the Alaska Constitution as all three individuals were outspoken either politically before or after Dunleavy took over as governor.
During the transition process between governors, more than 1,200 requests for letters of resignation were sent to at-will state employees, according to the complaint. The new administration could accept those letters, essentially firing the employee, or reject them, leaving the employee at work.
“When the government silences its own employees in violation of the constitution, the government must be held accountable, otherwise we lose our most cherished and basic freedom as Americans: The right to think and speak for ourselves,” Bakalar said at a press conference held by the ACLU to announce the lawsuits.
Bakalar sent a letter of resignation despite not wanting to. The complaint states that her resignation was accepted 18 minutes after Dunleavy’s inauguration. Two other assistant attorney generals are known to have also had their letters of resignation accepted.
“Defendants retaliated against Ms. Bakalar for her public and political speech by terminating her employment,” the complaint states.
Bakalar became a prolific blogger in 2014 and used her personal blog “One Hot Mess Alaska” to criticize President Donald Trump and his policies after the 2016 election as well as post about parenting, cosmetics and pop culture.
The ACLU complaint makes a direct connection between the blogging and her firing. “There was no reason, based on the merits of her work, for her to be let go,” ACLU Alaska Director Joshua Decker stated.
An assistant attorney general since 2006, Bakalar represented various state agencies including, most recently, the Alaska Division of Elections and received regular promotions and awards for merit while working for the state under both independent and Republican governors.
In the case of doctors Blanford and Bellville, their joint complaint also contends their firing is retaliation based on their use of free speech to decry the Dunleavy administration’s request for letters of resignation and that in order to keep their jobs they would need to jump on board Dunleavy’s cost-cutting agendas.
Instead of submitting letters of resignation by the deadline of Nov. 30, they submitted an editorial, published on Nov. 19 in Anchorage Daily News, explaining their decision not to resign for the good of their patients.
Both were subsequently fired when Dunleavy took over in December.
“Like the United States Constitution, the Alaska Constitution’s free speech guarantee includes both the right to speak freely and the right to refrain from speaking at all,” Blanford and Bellville’s joint complaint states.
While the letters sent to at-will state employees didn’t include references to signing onto Dunleavy’s political agenda as a requirement for employment, public comments made by Chief of Staff Tuckerman Babcock, formerly chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, make the basis for the lawsuits.
To fortify their cases, both complaints reference a quote from Babcock to the Anchorage Daily News on Nov. 16.
“[Dunleavy] just wants all of the state employees who are at-will — partially exempt, exempt employees — to affirmatively say, ‘Yes, I want to work for the Dunleavy administration.’ Not just bureaucracy staying in place, but sending out the message, ‘Do you want to work on this agenda, do you want to work in this administration? Just let us know.’”
The ACLU of Alaska maintains that Babcock’s public explanation of the letters is proof of an unconstitutional attempt to coerce speech from non-policymaking employees.
“The right to free speech includes both the right to speak freely and the right to refrain from speaking at all,” the filing representing the API doctors explains. “The right not to speak also prohibits the state from compelling non-policymaking public employees to pledge allegiance to any particular brand of government.”
Article 12 of the Alaska Constitution states, “The legislature shall establish a system under which the merit principle will govern the employment of persons by the State.”
The state personnel act, created as a result of that constitutional clause, states that merit employment policies include “selection and retention of an employee’s position secure from political influences.”
“There is a misperception that because Alaska is an ‘at will’ state and these are ‘exempt’ or partially ‘exempt’ positions that the government can fire our clients for any reason,” ACLU of Alaska Legal Director Stephen Koteff wrote in a prepared statement.
The announcement by the ACLU also points to the 1943 U.S. Supreme Court Case, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette that upheld students’ First Amendment rights to refrain from saluting the flag or saying the Pledge of Allegiance in school.
“It is the state’s policy not to comment on pending litigation, and this case involves personnel matters, which are confidential,” Cori Mills, a spokeswoman for the Department of Law, said in a statement provided by Dunleavy press secretary Matt Shuckerow.
“The state of Alaska will review the complaint and file its response with the court, at which time we can provide a copy of the court filing,” she said.
The state of Alaska has 30 days to respond to the ACLU’s lawsuits.
All three plaintiffs are seeking their jobs, back pay, an injunction against retaliation and punitive damages to be assessed at trial.