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Texas Politics Makes Poor Bedfellow to Career

MARSHALL, Texas (CN) - A former director of art galleries says Stephen F. Austin State University fired him illegally for refusing to judge a high school art contest sponsored by controversial Congressman Louie Gohmert.

Christian Cutler says he did not want to be publicly associated with Gohmert, who was waging a PR war accusing foreigners of sneaking pregnant women into the United States to have "terrorist babies."

Cutler sued the university, its President Baker Pattillo, Vice President Richard Berry, Dean of Fine Arts A.C. Himes, and Scott Robinson, the director of the university's Department of Fine Arts, in Federal Court.

Cutler worked for more than three years as Director of Art Galleries at SFASU, which is part of the Texas State University system. He says he consistently received "outstanding" performance evaluations and was never disciplined by the school.

He says his problems started in August 2010, when Rep. Gohmert's staff asked him to judge an annual high school art contest sponsored by Gohmert in Tyler, Texas.

Cutler says that he occasionally judged art shows in his free time, though such duties fell outside his job description. Since he was not familiar with Gohmert or the event, Cutler says, he did not accept the invitation right away and searched the Internet for information about the congressman.

He says he declined the invitation after watching two videos showing Gohmert denouncing a supposed plot involving "terror babies."

"On June 24, 2010, Rep. Gohmert spoke on the floor of the House of Representatives, implausibly claiming that a retired FBI agent had told him the FBI was looking into overseas terror cells planning to get their pregnant women into the United States to have a baby or babies and return back overseas to raise and coddle the baby or babies to become future terrorists, so the baby or babies could someday return to 'destroy our way of life,'" the complaint states.

"On or about Aug. 12, 2010, Rep. Gohmert gave an interview on CNN. When asked, Rep. Gohmert was unable to identify the alleged retired FBI agent he had referred to as the source of the claimed concern about the 'terror babies' plot, or provide any other basis for claiming the FBI, or anybody, took seriously the alleged plot. Indeed, Rep. Gohmert shouted continuously over the program host and appeared to become hysterical."

Cutler says he "reasonably came away with a bad impression of Rep. Gohmert and decided he did not want to be associated with Rep. Gohmert, or his art contest in Tyler, because, among other things, it would likely be a publicized event and give the appearance that Cutler supported Rep. Gohmert."

When Gohmert's staff asked for an explanation, "Cutler expressed his discomfort in saying so and plainly explained his impression that Rep. Gohmert was a fear monger with whom Cutler did not want to be associated."

Cutler says 10 days later he received a "rather insulting" letter from Gohmert, which was also sent to defendant Pattillo.

He says Gohmert's letter was "a thinly veiled effort to bully SFASU into taking action against Cutler," and stated, falsely, that Gohmert's staff had asked Cutler if the university would host the art contest and that Cutler had refused on behalf of the school.

Cutler says that after receiving the letter, the defendants manufactured a "series of interpersonal problems" as a pretext for firing him, and claimed that "losing" Rep. Gohmert's art show was a "last straw."

Cutler says the defendants suggested that his opinion of Gohmert could hinder the university's relationship with Gohmert, one of the school's sponsors.

Despite Cutler's explanation that Gohmert had never asked if the school would host the art show, the defendants fired Cutler on Sept. 28, 2010, according to the complaint.

Cutler claims "the named defendants, and perhaps others, cynically weighed their interests and determined it was more important to demonstrate their political fealty to Rep. Gohmert by terminating Cutler, an outstanding public employee, than it was to honor Cutler's First Amendment rights to voice his political opinion and not personally associate with a politician he does not personally support."

He adds: "As was also foreseeable, the defendants' actions in terminating Cutler for his opinion of Rep. Gohmert and declining his invitation to jury his art show, telegraphed to at least the SFASU community, if not to a broader community of public employees, that they may pay a serious price if they do not graciously grant even personal requests from elected officials. Defendants' actions therefore have had a foreseeable, if not intentional, chilling effect on free speech rights throughout the university community, and perhaps the First Congressional District of Texas if not an even broader community."

Cutler seeks reinstatement, compensatory and punitive damages for civil rights violations, and a court order prohibiting further retaliation.

He is represented by Timothy Garrigan with Stuckey Garrigan & Castetter of Nacogdoches.

Gohmert, a four-term Republican, was thrice elected a state district judge in Smith County, whose seat is Tyler. Gov. Rick Perry then appointed him Chief Justice of Texas' 12th Court of Appeals, where he served from 2002-03. After the state's early redistricting process in 2003, overseen by Tom DeLay, he defeated a Democratic incumbent and became congressman from the state's 1st District. He sits on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee.

In September this year, he introduced a bill in Congress and called it the American Jobs Act of 2011 - so that President Obama could not have a bill submitted by that name. Gohmert's one-page "bill" would cut the personal and corporate income tax rates to zero percent.

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