Federal appeals court won’t halt university’s discipline of professor

Tuesday, January 11, 2000

A federal appeals court has refused to halt a university's discipline of a professor who claims that school officials retaliated against her for her criticism of proposed changes to her department.

Cynthia Kruger alleged that University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth officials violated her First Amendment rights when they removed her as Education Department chair after she voiced objections to a proposed departmental restructuring.

She also alleged that her free-speech rights were violated because the officials suspended her from teaching for the fall 1999 semester after she objected to the chancellor's request that she treat her students better in class. Several students had complained that Kruger was verbally abusive in class.

Kruger sued in federal court, seeking an injunction to prevent her removal as department chair and her suspension for the fall 1999 semester.

After a lower court denied her request, she appealed to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The 1st Circuit noted that, in order to make a successful First Amendment claim, a public employee such as Kruger must show that:

  • She spoke on a matter of public concern.
  • Her free-speech interest outweighed the public employer's interests in promoting an efficient workplace.

  • The protected speech was a substantial factor in the employer's decision to take action against her.

  • The lower court refused to grant the injunction because it determined Kruger had “at best a marginal likelihood of success” in proving that her speech was a substantial factor in the university's decision to take action against her.

    The 1st Circuit agreed in its Jan. 4 opinion in Kruger v. Cressy. The appeals court determined that Kruger failed to show a connection between her speech and the adverse action taken against her.

    “The significant lapse of time — at least a year and a half — between the protected speech and Kruger's suspension and removal as chairperson suggests that any connection is attenuated,” the court wrote in its Jan. 4 opinion.

    “More importantly, the record is replete with serious and consistent student complaints about Kruger's conduct,” the court wrote.

    The appeals court noted that Kruger might be able to convince a jury that the student complaints were used as a pretext for retaliating against her for her speech. However, the court wrote that “the preliminary injunction record certainly does not compel such a conclusion.”

    Geoffrey B. McCullough, associate counsel for the university, said he was “pleased” with the appeals court's decision. “The court in my view correctly decided the legal issues,” he said.

    Calls placed to Kruger's attorney were not returned.