GALVESTON, Texas (CN) - A community college must face claims that it trampled free speech by reprimanding a professor who disrupted a board meeting, a federal judge ruled.
Most of the facts behind the 2011 complaint are largely undisputed, the court said.
In April 2010, The College of the Mainland president Michael Elam ended a 30-year policy of deducting union dues from the paychecks of faculty members.
In anticipation of a vote to reverse Elam's action, the two-year community college in Texas City, Texas, held a discussion session among board members.
Public comment is not permitted in such sessions, but longtime Mainland government professor David Michael Smith interrupted to contradict Elam's description of his talks with the union.
Smith, who attended the board meeting as a union official, says Mainland retaliated against him in three ways: issuing him a formal reprimand, filing a negative performance evaluation, and excluding him in its selection of a new faculty-hiring committee.
Considering a summary judgment motion against the 2011 complaint, U.S. District Judge Gregg Costa said Monday that the formal reprimand alone constitutes an adverse employment action, as required to support a claim for retaliation.
"The reprimand was an official rebuke of Smith's behavior; it served as a prelude to and put him at risk of termination; and it went on his permanent record, where it remains today," Costa wrote.
Mainland cannot justify the reprimand for summary judgment by citing Smith's disruption of the board meeting.
"That disruption was negligible," Costa wrote. "He uttered just two sentences, and the board laughed at the exchange and quickly returned to its business."
Costa said the balancing test favors Smith given that he "was speaking on a matter of public concern and that the two comments he made during a one-minute exchange did not in any meaningful way undermine the efficient operation of the college."
Smith abandoned his claims against Elam, who has since left the college, so the court granted summary judgment in favor of the former president.
Mainland and Smith have litigated over First Amendment issues before.
In a 2009 complaint, Smith claimed that the school barred him from speaking about tenure policies at a board meeting. Smith and his wife voluntarily dismissed those claims in 2010, noting that they had "resolved" all the issues in play, and a different judge dismissed the case with prejudice.