(CN) - A communications professor fired from Delaware State University for allegedly changing student-athletes' grades without permission lost his retaliation claim in the 3rd Circuit. Judge Ambro called the professor's First Amendment claims "makeweight attempts to counter his dismissal for doctoring grades."
In January 2004, the DSU registar audited grade changes after learning about a "grade irregularity" in a student-athlete's transcript. The audit revealed that Wendell Gorum, former chair of the Mass Communications Department, had changed withdrawals, incompletes and failing grades to passing grades for 48 students in his department. The tenured professor admitted his actions, but insisted that he had been authorized to make the changes and that it was common for department chairs to change grades at DSU.
An ad hoc disciplinary committee found evidence of several unearned grades, but recommended a two-year paid suspension instead of dismissal, saying Gorum's case "is the tip of the iceberg, and he is, in fact, the scapegoat (albeit a blamable scapegoat)."
University president Allen Sessoms fired Gorum, despite the report. Gorum accused the university of retaliation. According to Gorum, the university fired him for the following protected activities:
- He opposed Sessoms' selection as university president in 2003
- He acted as the advisor to DaShaun Morris, a football player who violated the university's zero-tolerance policy against weapons possession
- He rescinded the president's invitation to speak at a Martin Luther King Jr. prayer breakfast in 2004.
Judge Ambro of the Philadelphia-based appeals court held that these speech-related incidents are not protected, because they occurred within the scope of Gorum's official duties.
The court added that the alleged protected activities "hardly seem substantial factors" in the professor's firing.
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.