Support Just the News

Help Fund Honest Journalism

Donate

Community college targets professors for criticizing 'social justice' funding: lawsuit

Plaintiffs charge college officials intentionally attributed false claims to them in a bid to get them fired for constitutionally protected speech.

Updated: June 29, 2021 - 11:01pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

California community college officials intentionally attributed false claims to tenured history professors who objected to its spending on "social justice" initiatives, in a bid to get them fired for constitutionally protected speech, according to a lawsuit.

Matthew Garrett and Erin Miller accused Bakersfield College administrators of retaliating against them, "egged on" by progressive faculty, for their comments at a 2019 event on the "intellectual origins of campus censorship." 

Kern Community College District (KCCD) general counsel Christopher Hine falsely determined the duo had accused those progressive colleagues of misappropriating grant funds, deeming Garrett and Miller guilty of "unprofessional conduct" punishable by firing, the suit claims.

College president Sonya Christian has yet to act on the "administrative determination" referred to her by Hine nearly nine months later. The suit seeks to withdraw the referral and obtain compensatory and punitive damages against Hine, Chancellor Thomas Burke and unknown administrators for their "deliberate misconduct."

"At a time when college campuses are rife with 'cancel culture' and knee-jerk reactions to anything perceived as insensitivity toward so-called marginalized faculty and students," college officials have likely limited the professional opportunities available for Garrett and Miller, the suit claims.

The dispute goes back two years and involves two official Bakersfield College think tanks: the Social Justice Institute (SJI), cofounded by Christian and led by professor Oliver Rosales, and the Renegade Institute for Liberty, founded by Garrett and co-led by Miller.

Politically progressive social justice centers are established at many universities. The University of North Carolina's Campus Y, for example, was drawing similar scrutiny at the same time Garrett and Miller were questioning SJI's activities. Just Tuesday, Campus Y accused UNC of "race-based discrimination" for not offering tenure to 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones.

A spokesperson for KCCD told Just the News it does not comment on current litigation but "expects to file a responsive pleading once the lawsuit," which was filed May 25, "has been served by the plaintiffs."

Garrett and Miller referred questions to their lawyer Arthur Willner. He told Just the News he was waiting to hear from his counterpart at the district "whether they will accept service on behalf of the defendants." 

Garrett spoke at a special meeting of the KCCD Board of Trustees last week to make new allegations about "repeated violations of my confidentiality" by administrators.

Audio file

One dean sent his transcripts and social security number to her personal Yahoo account, while Vice President of Instruction Billie Jo Rice sent the same files to another VP "who has no oversight over faculty," Garrett said. His faculty antagonists also showed "intimate knowledge" of his personnel file as they tried to get him in trouble, and "I have those emails."

Rice unsuccessfully tried to stop his promotion via the equivalency process by pressuring the committee to impose a standard that was not applied to "Hispanic applicants who had the right sorts of viewpoints," he said.

A district spokesperson did not respond to a request to answer Garrett's new allegations.

Mediation collapses

Faculty and students associated with SJI accused Garrett and Miller of "advocating and enabling white supremacism," the lawsuit claims, by expressing skepticism that a guerilla sticker campaign on campus in spring 2019 amounted to "hate speech."

Administrators had threatened to prosecute the unknown vandals, whose stickers read "Smash Cultural Marxism," "Never Apologize for Being White" and "Feminism Is Cancer." Garrett suggested they might be a protest against "the use of taxpayer funds to advance a one-sided partisan political agenda on campus."

When Rosales and Andrew Bond, another professor associated with SJI, declined to debate Garrett on these issues, he and Miller spoke about them at their Renegade Institute event that fall. 

Garrett said the SJI professors were using grant funds to "further partisan social justice agendas" and called for an investigation into expenditures to organizations such as the nonprofit progressive media outlet Kern Sol News. President Christian herself had written a letter of support for a grant directing funds to Kern Sol News, according to the suit.

But Garrett didn't accuse the SJI faculty of misappropriating funds, "personally enriching themselves" or illegal conduct.

The suit alleges that Bond and Rosales filed human resources complaints against the duo shortly thereafter, around the same time Miller was filing public records requests. The administration has "steadfastly" refused to share those complaints with Garrett and Miller, even after Bond and Rosales filed "addendums" several months later.

Administrative mediation between the two sets of professors collapsed when Garrett and Miller refused to stop making public records requests or take down video from their event, as requested by Rice, the vice president of instruction. The administrator also faulted Garrett for denouncing the grant expenditures in a radio interview in which, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, he said "we've even got a fake news website that’s largely funded by the college."

The administrative determination of "unprofessional conduct" by Hine, the general counsel, claimed that Garrett and Miller had recklessly alleged "financial improprieties" by their critics at SJI. He also frowned on Garrett's radio interview and "recommended" the removal of their Renegade Institute video.

By falsely classifying Rosales and Bond as "whistleblowers," Hine kneecapped any defense by Garrett and Miller, the suit says, as they would risk "charges of retaliation and termination" for publicly defending their names.

As an attorney, Hine knows that their speech was not defamatory and that Rosales and Bond don't qualify as whistleblowers under California law, yet he made these claims to "throw a bone" to them. Bond responded by sending a campus-wide email "declaring victory" over Garrett and Miller, further cementing "lies" about their speech and their alleged white supremacism.

Garrett's testimony to the board last week emphasized the "strange hierarchy" revealed by KCCD ending the mediation process because the SJI faculty didn't approve. 

Garrett wants to "offer the olive branch once more" through mediation, provided the district makes a public retraction of its statements against him, posts a public-facing database of grant expenditures, and adopts the free speech principles formalized by the University of Chicago.

Just the News Spotlight