Philosophy Professor Sues College for Retaliation (updated)
Lauren Barthold, associate professor of philosophy at Gordon College, a Christian liberal arts college in Massachusetts, has filed a lawsuit against the college for retaliating against her for her public statements (such as a letter to the editor of a newspaper) disagreeing with college president Michael Lindsay over whether federal contractors, on the basis of religious beliefs, should be allowed to discriminate in hiring against lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, or queer (LGBTQ) persons.
The lawsuit is being filed with assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. According to the ACLU,
Barthold was threatened with termination and later disciplined because she wrote a letter to a newspaper and was quoted in a newspaper article as a critic of the president’s action. Although the administration backed down from the threat to terminate Professor Barthold after receiving a warning letter from one of her attorneys, they subsequently imposed discipline on her—removing her from faculty leadership positions, denying her the scheduled right to apply for a promotion, and removing her from serving as director of the gender studies minor.
The lawsuit, filed in Essex Superior Court, contends that Gordon officials violated various state laws protecting against retaliation for opposing discrimination, sex discrimination, and interference with freedom of expression and association.
According to the legal complaint, Professor Barthold position “does not involve or require her to espouse or promote any particular religious doctrine” and that her job as a professor “does not differ from the typical role of a professor at a non-Christian college.”
The complaint, if accurate contains some rather bad behavior by President Lindsay and his administration, including Provost Janel Curry, Executive Vice President Dan Tymann, and Human Resources officer Nancy Anderson. For example:
- offering to have a private “safe space” dialogue with Professor Barthold, only to yell at her and tell her she should “rethink her relationship with Gordon College” for having written the letter
- telling the entire Gordon College faculty that “the faculty could not have a discussion about Gordon’s hiring policy among themselves” because they might end up disagreeing with the College’s board of trustees.
- threatening Professor Barthold with termination for “publicizing internal differences” at the College
- telling Professor Barthold she would be ineligible for promotion to full professor—one day after she submitted her entire promotion dossier—despite having earlier been informed by the administration that she was indeed eligible.
- removing Professor Barthold from her directorship of the Gender Studies minor at the College.
I am in contact with the ACLU of Massachusetts, and I will provide updates on the case as they come my way.
(Here is coverage in the Boston Globe from 2014 about the disagreement faculty had with President Lindsay over his signing the letter requesting to be able to discriminate against LGBTQ people. And here’s a 2015 Inside Higher Ed piece on that and Gordon College’s policy barring any one enrolled or employed by the school from having sex outside of heterosexual marriage.)
UPDATE (4/29/16): Inside Higher Ed has an article on the lawsuit here.
UPDATE 2 (4/29/16): Rick Sweeney, Vice President of Marketing and Communications at Gordon College has provided the following statement:
Gordon College was saddened and disappointed by the ACLU of Massachusetts’ press release related to the discipline of Professor Lauren Barthold. The ACLU’s release grossly misrepresents what happened and why Professor Barthold was disciplined. It was Professor Barthold’s peers on the Faculty Senate who voted to discipline her. The discipline was not a response to her disagreement with the College on any policies but expressly because she publicly called for a boycott of the school and severing of ties, which would harm students and potentially affect faculty and staff at Gordon.
As the ACLU’s own release highlights, Gordon has encouraged a very healthy and open discussion of sexuality over the last few years. At no time has any action been taken to suppress open dialogue or suppress differences within our community. Far from seeking to suppress such disagreement and discussion, Gordon has fostered dialogue by bringing in pro-LGBTQ speakers and funding programs to support LGBTQ students. Professor Barthold’s faculty peers voted to discipline her in a manner consistent with past precedent because her actions harmed the Gordon community and violated their trust.
Anyone with information about the accuracy of this statement or assertions made in the legal complaint is welcome to confidentially email me.
Sigh. I haven’t been following DN or the professional philosophy world all that long, so maybe some of you can answer this: are things getting worse on the free speech front, or have these things always occurred this frequently?Report
Sigh. Depends what you mean by “free speech” and “these things.” Gordon College is a private religious institution, which means it is a free association under the first amendment (same one that talks about free speech). It is simultaneously an employer which creates obligations under federal law and through the 14th under state law to protect the civil liberties of its employees. This most definitely sounds like it’s acting poorly in some regards but some of those regards may in fact be legal (Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, Petitioner v EEOC et al.).
Conversely try getting hired at a state school if you voice anything not in line with liberal views on transgender bathrooms. State schools are entities of the government, rather than free associations, and don’t have the right to do that. So I’d say “things [are] getting worse on the free speech front” but also that colleges/universities (public and private) acting badly is not new so much as now it’s more quickly publicized.Report
Unlike in Hosanna-Tabor, Barthold is not a minister.Report
Have you read Hosanna-Tabor? Her job was primarily teaching elementary school. I would wager that the Gordon College faculty handbook like most religious institutions identifies a big part of the job as ministry.Report
Yes, I have read it. The court was explicit that she had changed positions from a lay teacher to a “called” teacher and was a minister were of paramount importance, and that their decision would not bear on legal disputes between non-ministers and religious institutions that hire them.Report
We have here a concrete case of a tenured academic being punished for expressing a pro-LGBTQ view (and the threat to fire her in violation of her tenure doesn’t sound like it’d be covered by Hosanna-Tabor even if she were a minister). In response you say that it’s the pro-LGBTQ side that poses the real threat to free speech, without citing any evidence. I find this less than convincing.Report
I’ll try again. The first amendment grants not just individuals but organizations (i.e. something that would include private universities and colleges) to have their own set of standards and rules. The post I replied to complained that it’s a horrific violation of “free speech” for such a private institution to impose the rules it has. But it’s precisely the freedom of association that grants them this right, a right structured such that religious institutions can impose religious tests on their employees.
Yes, I did not provide evidence of when the pro-LGBTQIA is discriminating in hiring practices. But I’ll suggest the following Bayesian inference. Consider the percentage of the population opposed to gay marriage, etc (roughly 40% we’ll say). Then consider the number of tenured faculty in any field who have spoken against gay marriage at state institutions. Obviously, we will need to correct for other factors (which would decrease the likelihood people opposed would be working at universities — let’s say this reduces the probability to 8%). Do you hear anyone stating anything of this kind at all?Report
The American Philosophical Association (APA) has long run its own publication advertising jobs in the field. [The role played publication, “Jobs for Philosophers” (JFP) has, in the last few years been taken over by “Phil Jobs”] In 2009, there was a debate in the American Philosophical Association (hereafter, APA) over whether the APA should enforce its non-discrimination policy by either (a) flagging advertisements in the JFP for those institutions that explicitly discriminate against gay and lesbian folks in hiring, promotion and tenure, or (b) prohibiting such institutions from advertising in the JFP. Roughly 1500 philosophers signed a petition in favor of so enforcing the APA’s non-discrimination policy. 100 philosophers signed a counter-petition, claiming that the APA, as an organization, should take it be acceptable to *fire a philosopher, employed as a philosopher, for being gay* (n.1) That counter-petition was widely circulated, submitted to the National board of the APA, and is still available for viewing online.
Of course, it is true, that 100/1500 is roughly 7%, not 8%…Report
“100 philosophers signed a counter-petition, claiming that the APA, as an organization, should take it be acceptable to *fire a philosopher, employed as a philosopher, for being gay*”
Since this is the second time such a statement has been made in the boldface in the DN comments, perhaps it will not be too uptight to request that its incorrectness be pointed out. I highly doubt that any of the signatories of the Murphy letter would acknowledge their signatures as endorsing this claim. I haven’t checked the policies of all of the schools mentioned in the letter, but I’m familiar with some of them. And what they require is: (i) belief that sexual activity be restricted to monogamous heterosexual marriage, and (ii) action in accord with such belief. So gay people can be employees in good standing provided they satisfy (i) and (ii), just like non-gay people can be employees in bad standing for failing to satisfy either (i) or (ii).
People may believe that the actual policies are just as bad as one that would fire someone just for being gay, but that’s not obvious, and part of what is under dispute by the Murphy letter’s signatories. If the signatories of the letter are to be faulted, it should be for a view they actually hold, and not one they don’t.Report
I look forward to the Murphy letter signatories coming forward and proclaiming that it is in accordance with their avowed principles for a public university –as part of an expression of the values of its community– to adopt a policy that while having an Evangelical orientation is just fine, attending an Evangelical church is a fireable offense for a philosopher. Because that wouldn’t be discriminatory against Evangelicals. Just the practicing ones.Report
Why are you talking about bathroom policy in your job interview?Report
Why are you not reading carefully? I didn’t say anything about mentioning it in an interview. I suggested *having* such a view — particularly in writing — would negatively affect one’s employment chances.Report
‘According to the legal complaint, Professor Barthold position “does not involve or require her to espouse or promote any particular religious doctrine”’
The very first thing in Gordon’s statement of life and conduct (binding on all faculty, staff, and students):
“Call themselves Christian by virtue of the grace of God and their personal commitment to Jesus Christ.”
I don’t know about the rest of the complaint, but it looks like leading with an obvious falsehood.Report
It would not look that way to anyone familiar with the law here. Employees considered “ministers” aren’t covered by anti-discrimination laws, and courts have been pretty lenient about qualifies as a “ministerial role.” Barthold needs to establish that she’s not in a ministerial role and that she doesn’t have specifically religious job duties or play an important role in the school’s religious message or mission. That is very clearly what is happening in this part of the complaint. It goes: 7: never was called a minister; 8: duties as professor are not religious; 9: clear distinction between people with ministerial duties and other faculty; 10: promotion does not consider ministerial abilities; 11: being Christian, much less a specific denomination, is not a necessary factor in hiring decisions; 12: students are not required to be a particular religion, and the school encourages debate on religious matters (suggesting its goal as an institution is not to instill a single point of view).
Gordon might use the code of conduct to argue that she was, in fact, in a ministerial role. The fact that the code, as you say, purports to cover *all faculty and staff* weakens their argument there, because “all staff” includes people who clearly do not have religious roles like maintenance workers and chefs.Report
In addition to what WP wrote, the rest of that sentence in the complaint reads “to students or other members of the Gordon community.”Report
The statement from the university reads, “The discipline was not a response to her disagreement with the College on any policies but expressly because she publicly called for a boycott of the school and severing of ties, which would harm students and potentially affect faculty and staff at Gordon.”
But her public statement (in the letter to the editor) does not actually do this. She wrote, “In the coming years, I am committed to working with students and colleagues to do just that. In the meantime, I ask those outside the Gordon community to do two things. First, please accept the fact that we do not all think alike here. Additionally, I would encourage you to reflect on whether and in what way any ties you currently have with Gordon may be either severed or strengthened. In fact, I can see reasons for both economic sanctions (so to speak) and for asserting yourself (your views, your money, your actions) more actively into the community — depending on your situation. I am not writing this letter to either plead for your continued support of Gordon or to ask you to boycott the college. While I do not know what the best action you can take is, I do know that all of us at Gordon want Gordon to thrive, regardless of the degree of pain we have suffered working and studying here. Many of us believe that in order for such flourishing to happen, we need to do some humble soul-searching and take difficult practical steps. There are movements stirring within Gordon to do just that. Join us as you can.”
From what I can tell there is no mention from her of a boycott (neither endorsing one nor mentioning it as a possibility) or severing ties, in her remarks to the Boston Globe.Report
I dunno. I read your quote and was intrigued as to what the antecedent of “just that” is. Reading the letter on its whole, I can see room both for the claim (A) she isn’t calling for a boycott and the claim that (B) she’s being mealymouthed about it and indirectly calling for a boycott while trying to cover her self. E.g., “I’m not telling anyone to get the pitchforks and torches” but I’m telling everyone to make this place change. I’m not saying you need to accept reading (B). In fact, I don’t find the reading that convincing myself, but it’s disingenuous to not acknowledge and recognize its possibility.Report
I was quoting a passage where she explicitly says she sees why some folks will think a boycott is a good idea. It hardly seems like the possibility of (what I think is an extremely uncharitable) (B) interpretation was hidden in my comment. But, regardless, you’re right, the fuller context matters — except that in the fuller context of the letter includes things like, “Many, many times over the years that I have worked here, I have asked myself whether I should quit in protest over this discriminatory policy. In the end, I concluded that my resignation (or even a handful of resignations) would do absolutely nothing to change the policy. I am convinced that change must primarily come from within,” (which strongly suggests in our mind a boycott is not a good idea, as severing ties does not allow for “change [to] come from within.” And the “just that” is referring to, “win[ning] back the trust” of the geographical community around Gordon, and the LGBTQ Christian community. I take it this is why you don’t think the (B) reading is convincing, but I’m surprised that you thought my comment was disingenuous when it seems to me like the statement issued by Gordon was obviously so.Report
*her mind, not ourReport
My reason for thinking (B) is unlikely is that the letter’s focus is clearly elsewhere, and the mention of boycotts seems like an afterthought — but still one I at least would want clarification about if I was her employer (If Bernie Sanders campaign manager wrote a letter to the WSJ saying “socialism is nigh bs” I think that’s be a pretty good reason to talk to him) . It’s clear Professor Barthold disagrees with and has disagreed with her employer for a while. Instead where I think the letter is both at its most interesting and most problematic relates to her choice to continue working at a private institution whose practices she finds reprehensible. While she says considered to “quit in protest”, did she also consider to quit in “this isn’t a community I agree with and want to be a part of.” To me (perhaps not to others), it seems weird to want to be a part of private group one finds reprehensible.Report
In reading UnderemployedPhD’s comment, I can see room for the claim (A) that he’s just making a philosopher’s point about the possibly of alternative readings that he/she doesn’t endorse or (B) that it is a mealymouthed way of calling Barthold a dirty, manipulative liar. I’m not saying you need to accept reading (B). In fact, I don’t find the reading that convincing myself, but don’t you think it would be worth going out of our way to publicly entertain reading (B) in a context where Underemployed PhD’s livelihood and public reputation were on the line?Report
I’m not sure how to reconcile the statements that you quoted her making, “Additionally, I would encourage you to reflect on whether and in what way any ties you currently have with Gordon may be either severed or strengthened. ” and ” I am not writing this letter to either plead for your continued support of Gordon or to ask you to boycott the college.” with your statement that “From what I can tell there is no mention from her of a boycott (neither endorsing one nor mentioning it as a possibility) or severing ties, in her remarks to the Boston Globe.” Clearly she at least mentions them as possibilities.Report
No. If you follow the links above you can see that the quotes I offered (which you repeat in your comment) are from an op-ed she wrote that was printed in The Salem News. That op-ed is distinct from her remarks to the Boston Globe.Report
Ah, that makes sense. Thank you for the clarification.Report