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Lawsuit Accuses WSU's Murrow College of Violating Journalism Professor's First Amendment Rights

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SPOKANE, Wash. (Spectrum Features)-- A Washington State University journalism professor Wednesday (Oct. 28) filed a federal lawsuit against four administrators at his university who, he says, violated his First Amendment rights when they punished him for proposing a "7-Step Plan" to improve the quality of the unaccredited undergraduate mass communication programs in the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication.

Tenured associate professor David K. Demers filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Spokane. The defendants are Erica Austin, former interim director and dean of the Murrow program; Warwick Bayly, interim provost and executive vice president; Erich Lear, former dean of the College of Liberal Arts; and Frances McSweeney, vice provost for faculty affairs.

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"The pattern of actions taken by the defendants demonstrates a concerted effort to punish Dr. Demers for creating his 7-Step Plan and for criticizing the Murrow College administrators," the complaint states. "Publication of the 7-Step Plan was a substantial and motivating factor in the punishment Dr. Demers received from the University ... ." (Note:The full complaint is availableat )
Prepared by Demers' attorney, Judith Endejan of the Seattle law firm of Graham & Dunn, the complaint asserts that Austin justified low performance reviews by falsely accusing Demers of canceling classes in 2007 and 2008. She claimed Demers violated university policies, serious charges to level against a faculty member. She then subjected Demers to an "internal audit" conducted by a WSU internal auditor whose sister worked for Austin in the Murrow office. The complaint contends that the auditor had a "patent conflict of interest." The audit reiterated the false charges of class cancellation but found no ethical violations.

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The lawsuit also contends that Austin punished Demers in his 2008 annual review for writing a book which questions the commitment that WSU and other universities have given to free speech rights of faculty and students and to solving social problems. The book, titled The Ivory Tower of Babel, also chronicles events at WSU leading up to the lawsuit. According to the complaint, these events, such as unwarranted internal audits, low performance reviews based upon false charges and the failure to correct them, demonstrates a pattern by the administration to silence or get rid of a professor who challenged them.

Demers also filed a tort claim with the Washington state Office of Financial Management, claiming he was "mobbed" by administrators and some faculty. Workplace mobbing is a form of collective behavior that social scientists say is the nonviolent adult counterpart to "playground bullying" and is prevalent at places where employees have job protection through tenure or other means.The claim seeks $2 million in damages for emotional distress and other torts.

The 7-Step Plan was first formally presented to university officials in January 2007. It recommended that the Murrow program hire a dean with substantial professional experience, seek national accreditation for the mass communication programs through the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, give more power and authority in the program to professional faculty, and remove the communication studies sequence from the program. Demers offered to donate $100,000 of his own money to the university if it implemented the plan.

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"Dr. Austin and many of the faculty were angry when I opposed their ideas for changing the Murrow program and presented the 7-Step Plan directly to the provost and president of the university," Demers says. "Many were especially angry about my call to remove the communication studies sequence, which has a lot of clout but few students in the Murrow College. But only three of the top 30 Ph.D.-granting mass communication programs in the United States have a communication studies sequence.

Demers tried for years to get the university to seek national accreditation for the programs in print journalism, broadcasting, public relations and advertising. Accreditation is the single best indicator of the quality of a program, he said, but Murrow faculty have repeatedly rejected it. The University of Washington and Western Washington University both have accredited print journalism programs.

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Walter Brasch is an award-winning journalist and professor of journalism emeritus. His current books are Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution , America's Unpatriotic Acts: The Federal Government's Violation of (more...)

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