Former Washington State U. professor agrees to settlement in free speech case

WASHINGTON — A former journalism professor at Washington State University has settled a free speech case with the institution over claims that university officials retaliated against him when portions of his plan to improve the school of communication upset them and some faculty members.

The settlement, which the U.S. Bankruptcy Court approved on Oct. 23, “sends a strong message to university administrators that those who intend to violate professors’ free-speech rights will be held accountable,” David Demers, who left WSU in 2012, said in a Nov. 4 press release from the American Civil Liberties Union. Demers will receive $120,000 from the settlement.

In 2009, Demers sued four administrators at the university, claiming they retaliated against him for releasing a seven-point plan to improve the university’s Edward R. Murrow School of Communication.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in September 2013 that Demers distributing a pamphlet containing the plan to improve the school of communication, which is now a college — including to separate the mass communication program from the communication studies program and to give non-tenure professional faculty a stronger voice — was protected speech under the First Amendment.

The five-year legal battle did not come without its damages to Demers, who filed for bankruptcy in the spring after paying legal fees that have amounted to $350,000, according to the press release. The $120,000 he received in the settlement will go toward those fees.

“Anytime you settle a case there’s give and take, and in exchange for eliminating the risk of trial Dr. Demers got a settlement amount,” said Judy Endejan, Demers’ attorney. “Did it cover all of his fees? No, it doesn’t and that’s a shame, but that’s kind of part of the settlement mix.”

Kathy Barnard, executive director of University Communications, said the decision by WSU officials to settle with Demers was a “business decision” based on the “additional cost and time associated with any further litigation about this matter.”

“It in no way should be construed as any admission of fault or any acknowledgement that Dr. Demers’ claim had any merit,” she said. “but this is solely a business decision.”

In 2007, four WSU administrators allegedly retaliated against Demers’ plan by issuing an internal audit of the former professor and Marquette Books, Demers’ part-time book publishing business.

“Although the audit failed to find evidence of criminal or ethical wrong-doing, it concluded that Demers had violated some university rules — a conclusion Demers disputed,” according to the press release.

A federal judge in Spokane ruled in favor of the administrators in 2011, citing precedent from the 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision Garcetti v. Ceballos, which states that public employees’ speech “pursuant to their official duties” is not protected by the First Amendment. Demers appealed, and the Ninth Circuit ruled that academic speech is protected under the First Amendment on issues that relate to teaching or research, according to the press release.

Contact SPLC staff writer Michael Bragg by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.