College wants to fire professor for 'dishonesty' of different opinions

Statement of charges made public in professor's First Amendment retaliation lawsuit. His lawyer calls it "an open war on whistleblower protections."

Updated: March 26, 2023 - 11:08pm

A tenured history professor could lose his job for the "unprofessional conduct" of heatedly disagreeing with colleagues about racial matters, protesting when Bakersfield College let other events meet in person during COVID-19 restrictions but not his, and filing complaints about alleged discrimination.

Matthew Garrett filed the Nov. 21 statement of charges last week in his ongoing First Amendment retaliation lawsuit with fellow history professor Erin Miller against Kern Community College District (KCCD) officials. Their lawyer Arthur Willner characterized the charges as "an open war on whistleblower protections, faculty tenure, and the First Amendment."

One of the charges stems from Garrett's purportedly racist comments during a diversity committee meeting that debated a proposed "racial justice task force," but a recording of the meeting obtained by Just the News didn't support those allegations.

Garrett asked the KCCD Board of Trustees to let him defend himself at its April 13 meeting when it considers the district's termination proposal, according to an email included in the "request for judicial notice" filed March 21.

"I have never had any opportunity to address most of the charges against me (nor have I ever been notified of any investigation of most of the charges)," Garrett told President Romeo Agbolog, citing California's Brown Act on public participation in government meetings and "basic respect for due process."

A petition for Garrett has drawn more than 700 signatures, lauding his campus awards for leadership and service to disabled students and "persistent, thoughtful questioning of partisan policies and expenditures" at BC, which provoked administrators and "social justice revolutionaries" to harass him for years.

The 19-page charging document, not previously public in its entirety, repeatedly portrays Garrett's opinions and allegations as "dishonesty" and his advocacy itself as violations of California or KCCD policies. 

Similar actions cost a Texas community college $70,000 and attorney's fees to settle a lawsuit by an adjunct professor who was dumped after criticizing its COVID response and insulting then-Vice President Mike Pence on Twitter.

The charges against Garrett say he "defended vandalism" on campus — anonymously placed stickers that read "Smash Cultural Marxism” and "Never Apologize for Being White" — by challenging its portrayal as "hate speech" in a Bakersfield Californian op-ed in which he conceded "a motivated prosecutor could interpret the stickers as vandalism." He also "disregarded the impact" of the "attack" on students, the charges say.

Garrett shot back in a point-by-point Dec. 5 rebuttal, shared with Just the News last week, that KCCD may have violated its own policy by "explicitly citing" his complaints as grounds for discipline. General Counsel Christopher Hine, one of the defendants, also denied the stickers were "hate speech" and so would the Supreme Court, the rebuttal says. 

"Broad philosophical and political discussion points" such as "the meaning of cultural Marxism are clearly a matter of public interest" and within Garrett's "academic purview," and KCCD's attempt to regulate his extramural expression "constitutes retaliation," it says.

Garrett and Miller are involved in BC's classically liberal Renegade Institute for Liberty, which has clashed repeatedly with BC's progressive Social Justice Institute. Both institutes are faculty run. Then-BC President Sonja Christian, who cofounded SJI but also approved Garrett's proposal for the Renegade Institute, was recently named chancellor of California's community college system.

Administrators claimed Garrett and Miller falsely accused SJI leaders of misappropriating funds, the basis of their first unprofessional conduct investigation in 2019, when the duo criticized BC's funding of a social justice agenda in forums such as a Renegade Institute event. The claim reappears in Garrett's Nov. 21 charges.

KCCD trustees denounced Renegade-affiliated faculty at a December meeting, with one comparing them to livestock that need to be culled, prompting Willner to dub them "Slaughterhouse Trustees."

The district interpreted Garrett's protests that his school-choice event was being treated differently under COVID rules as having "violated" or "persisted in his demand to violate" those rules, which "demonstrated a continuous pattern of unprofessional conduct and dishonesty."

What he actually did, according to Garrett, was fail to convince Dean Richard McCrow to "reschedule a zoom event as an in-person event, much as other campus programs were permitted to host." He then hosted the event independently off-campus with his own money.

Garrett "rightfully" submitted a complaint about this "unequal and retaliatory behavior" that selectively enforced COVID rules, while demonstrating "upstanding conduct" by complying with McCrow's decision, according to the rebuttal. Willner said the college twice hosted in-person press conferences with a Democratic assemblyman during the same period.

It was the district that falsely claimed Garrett's comments at the diversity committee meeting had prompted student complaints, Garrett said. KCCD's own evidence shows the students were "clearly coached and marched in front of a zoom screen to assail the faculty who questioned their mentor's agenda," Garrett argued, referring to English professor Paula Parks and her proposed task force.

"It is widely absurd to place weight on accusations of racism hurled by students who Dr. Garrett has never before met or seen, but who are closely mentored by Dr. Paula Parks who has a documented history of animosity toward Dr. Garrett," the rebuttal says.

Publicly testifying against a proposed "Cesar E. Chavez Leadership Certificate and associated courses" as a "nakedly partisan ... high school field trip" that lacks college rigor and then sharing his comments on social media, qualifies as "disruptions" and false accusations in KCCD's charges.

This not only ignores that Garrett is "exquisitely qualified to speak" on a proposed ethnic studies history curriculum but violates his faculty contract and California labor law on political activity, the rebuttal contends. The same California law was invoked in a recent lawsuit by a Stanford University physician allegedly fired for advocating against COVID policies.

"We do not agree with Garrett’s description or characterization of events or actions related to this matter," BC spokesperson Norma Rojas wrote in a statement. "This personnel action is not an issue of free speech. We support the rights of all members of our community to speak out on issues of concern whether on political issues or those involving the College."

KCCD did not respond to Just the News about the charges or Garrett's rebuttal. Parks responded but did not comment on her portrayal in the rebuttal, and McCrow didn't respond.