INDIANA – A former student newspaper adviser who was removed from his position by Vincennes University filed a federal lawsuit against the school on Feb. 2, claiming his First and 14th Amendment rights were violated.
Michael Mullen, who was also a journalism instructor and chairman of the journalism department, filed suit against the public university at a federal district court in Terre Haute nine months after he was transferred and demoted after conflict between student newspaper the Trailblazer and the university.
According to the complaint filed by Mullen, tension began to arise with the university in April 2003, when copies of the Trailblazer were stolen in response to a controversial April Fools’ Day issue. The university administration did not follow through with an investigation of the theft, although Mullen and students “were repeatedly told between April of 2003 and April of 2004 that the matter of the removal of the papers was still under investigation,” according to the Feb. 2 complaint.
In addition to not investigating the theft, the university denounced the April Fools’ issue as “vulgar and in poor taste” in a letter to Mullen, the complaint said. Over the summer, the university threatened to cancel the newspaper altogether, and the next school year the administration denied him the salary increase he was entitled to, according to the complaint.
On May 11, interim Dean Mary Trimbo told Mullen he was being transferred to the English department, and that he would no longer be serving as the adviser to the Trailblazer. The next day, Mullen found out that there was no grievance process available for faculty, and instead he had to follow a “disagreement procedure,” in which his complaints are submitted through a chain of command. The first person in the chain of command was Trimbo, who made the original decision to demote Mullen.
“That [disagreement procedure] denies due process, because due process allows you to tell your side of the story [and] to have your situation reviewed by an impartial reviewer,” said Mullen’s lawyer, Ida Lamberti. “Clearly if you go back to the person who made the decision against you in the first place, that’s not an impartial reviewer.”
Mullen attempted to take his complaint to someone higher in the chain of command than Trimbo, Lamberti said. The complaint reached former interim President John Gregg, who represented one of the students who was accused of the April 2003 theft before becoming interim president. Gregg told Mullen that the administration was supporting Trimbo’s decision to transfer him from the journalism department and remove him from his position as the Trailblazer’s adviser.
After Mullen filed suit, Trimbo maintained that Mullen was transferred to the English department out of necessity.
“He has tenure in English, and we had need for him in English, and we moved him to English. He did not have tenure in journalism,” Trimbo said. She said Mullen’s transfer was not unusual because the administration had transferred another tenured English professor back to the department in 2003, although she would not name the professor, citing a “personnel issue.”
David Sumner, executive director of the Indiana Collegiate Press Association, said he doubts there was a need for Mullen in the English department at all, because that need did not arise until after the Trailblazer published controversial material. “It just seems too coincidental that this re-assignment occurred [at the same time],” Sumner said. Sumner said the Indiana Collegiate Press Association unanimously supports Mullen.
Mullen filed a tort claim in September 2004, at which point the university was given 90 days to respond. The university did not respond, and he filed a federal lawsuit against them on Feb. 2. Vincennes University has not responded to the lawsuit yet.
Lamberti said Mullen is hoping to achieve possible reinstatement to his old position, as well as the compensation of actual damages due to his financial loss. In addition Mullen is hoping to change university policies that impede constitutional rights, such as the lack of a grievance procedure available for faculty.
“We’re asking that the court order [Vincennes University] to stop doing what they are doing that violates free speech and that violates due process,” Lamberti said.
–By Diane Krauthamer
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