Showing posts with label whistleblowers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label whistleblowers. Show all posts

Monday, September 27, 2021

FOIA requesters need protection against retaliation; in egregious case, court allows First Amendment theory

Intersection of state highways 42 & 61 in Conyngham Town, Pa.
(2019 photo by Mr. Matté CC BY-SA 3.0)
A bizarre FOIA case decided by the Third Circuit suggests that use of an open records act in the public interest triggers constitutional protection against retaliation under the First Amendment.

A businessperson and landlord in Conyngham, Pennsylvania, John McGee used the state freedom of information act (FOIA), called the Right to Know Act, to investigate his suspicions of financial malfeasance in town government.  A town supervisor then sent to McGee, you read that correctly, a demand for private business information, purportedly issued in the name of the town and under the authority of the FOIA.

McGee asked the board of supervisors for an explanation, and they refused to give any.  In a lawsuit, McGee alleged violation of substantive due process rights and the First Amendment.  He alleged that he did not know that the town's demand was unlawful and unenforceable.

The district court dismissed both counts; the Third Circuit reversed and remanded on the First Amendment claim.  The court explained:

In order to prevail on a retaliation claim under the First Amendment, “a plaintiff must … [prove]: (1) constitutionally protected conduct, (2) retaliatory action sufficient to deter a person of ordinary firmness from exercising his constitutional rights, and (3) a causal link between the constitutionally protected conduct and the retaliatory action.” Thomas v. Indep. Twp.... (3d Cir. 2006). There does not appear to be any dispute that McGee engaged in constitutionally protected speech, nor that there was evidence of a causal link between his speech and the Right-to-Know request [supervisor Linda] Tarlecki gave him.

Only the middle prong was at issue on appeal, and the court found sufficient evidence for McGee to fend off summary judgment.  The test for deterrence is objective, the Third Circuit emphasized, so it doesn't really matter whether McGee was deterred as a matter of fact.

What intrigues me about the case is the apparently non-controverted question of element (1).  The Third Circuit opinion is ambiguous on what serves so self-evidently as McGee's constitutionally protected conduct.  McGee previously had been critical, in public testimony, of the board of supervisors for how it managed the housing code, but that doesn't seem to be the impetus for retaliation here.  His FOIA request may be construed as a petition of government or as a precursor to further public criticism.  The court did not specify.

In the law of the United States, at the federal level and in most states, requesting access to information is a statutory privilege, not a constitutional right per se.  There is a strong argument that the distinction is immaterial to attachment of the First Amendment right to petition to a FOIA request.  But de facto, in my work in FOIA advocacy, retaliation against FOIA requesters is a real and serious risk.  When asked for counsel by persons contemplating use of FOIA to investigate government, I warn would-be requesters of the possibility of retaliation.

If the First Amendment affords protection against retaliation, it's not an easily won theory.  First, there are practical problems.  Finding an attorney willing to bring a First Amendment claim against government is neither easy nor cheap.  Civil rights litigation and First Amendment law are both complicated.  Attorneys who practice in civil rights prefer the familiar patterns of discrimination and harassment based on race or gender.  In small legal communities such as Arkansas's, attorneys are loath to sue sugar-daddy government.  The thin possibility of winning attorney fees, even with a multiplier, upon a convincing legal victory is not enough to incentivize counsel.

Second, legal problems loom on the merits.  Usually problematic is the third element, causation.  The conduct here in McGee is unusual in its blatant motive.  Ordinarily, when local officials deny zoning variances, liquor licenses, or other privileges to applicants who happen to be accountability mavens, the causal connection cannot be shown to a constitutionally satisfactory certainty.

Element (1) is often a problem, too, because would-be requesters are also often would-be whistleblowers.  Under the muddled constitutional jurisprudence of the rights of public employees, the First Amendment does not preclude being fired for blowing the whistle on malfeasance in one's government workplace, much less the act of filing a state FOIA request to the same end.

There's a cruel irony of inefficiency in our First Amendment jurisprudence in that public employees are least protected when they speak of what they know best.  The jurisprudence rather favors being a team player in government.  Defectors, however righteous, must seek protection in statute, where there might be none.

When I worked on FOIA advocacy issues in Arkansas, before I moved to Rhode Island in 2011, I aided Reps. Dan Greenberg and Andrea Lea with 2009 H.B. 1052, which amended the state whistleblower protection statute with express protection for the use of FOIA.  Opponents of the bill argued that it was unnecessary, because existing law protected state employees in communicating concerns to elected officials.  My experience suggested that an elected official carelessly chosen was as likely to burn a whistleblower as to facilitate accountability.

More aggressive protection of FOIA requesters should be the norm throughout the United States.  Retaliation should not have to be as overtly wrongful as in McGee to trigger protection, whether statutory or constitutional.

The case is McGee v. Township of Conyngham, No. 20-3229 (3d Cir. Sept. 23, 2021).  U.S. Circuit Judge Kent A. Jordan wrote the opinion of a unanimous panel that also comprised Judges Marjorie Rendell and David J. Porter.  HT @ Prof. Rob Steinbuch and Prof. Eugene Volokh (Volokh Conspiracy).

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Court affirms widow's $21m verdict vs. Big Tobacco, upholds punitive damages despite '98 settlement

Marlboro Red Open Box by Sarah Johnson (CC BY 2.0)
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed a $21m verdict against Philip Morris USA in favor of the widow of a smoker who died of lung cancer in 2016.

Fred R. Laramie started smoking in 1970, at age 13, when a store clerk gave him a free sample pack of Marlboros, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recounted.  He became a pack-a-day smoker and remained loyal to the brand, unable to quit despite trying, until his diagnosis and death in 2016.

Laramie's wife, Pamela, sued under the Massachusetts wrongful death statute.  She alleged that Marlboros were dangerously defective for their engineered addictive properties, an excess of the risk of smoking known to consumers and indicated on cigarette labels since 1969.  The jury in the Superior Court awarded Pamela Laramie $11m in compensatory damages and $10m in punitive damages.

The bulk of the high court's 37-page, unanimous opinion analyzes the inventive defense argument that the large punitive award is precluded by the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) of state claims against Big Tobacco.  As the court recalled in a footnote:

The [Big Tobacco] defendants agreed to pay approximately $240 billion to the settling States over twenty-five years, and to pay approximately $9 billion per year thereafter in perpetuity, subject to various adjustments. The agreement allocated approximately four percent of those payments to the Commonwealth. The defendants also agreed to restrict cigarette advertising and lobbying efforts, to permit public access to certain internal documents, and to fund youth education programs.

Punitive damages are not awarded in Massachusetts common law; they must be authorized by statute.  The wrongful death statute authorizes punitive damages when the defendant caused injury "by ... malicious, willful, wanton or reckless conduct ... or by ... gross negligence."

The plaintiff successfully relied on internal documents of Big Tobacco that demonstrate the artificial manipulation of the nicotine content in cigarettes.  In the 1990s, the revelation of such records marked the plaintiff breakthrough that precipitated the collapse of Big Tobacco's long-successful wall of defenses in product liability litigation.  The revelation represented, more or less, the information at issue in the case of whistleblower-scientist Jeffrey Wigand, reported in 1996 by Vanity Fair and 60 Minutes and subject of the 1999 feature film, The Insider.

The SJC rejected the defense argument of claim preclusion.  The court recognized a qualitative difference between the claims of the Attorney General that resulted in the MSA and the claim of Laramie that persuaded a jury.

The "wrong" the plaintiff sought to remedy was the loss she and her daughter sustained due to Laramie's death, caused by Philip Morris's malicious, willful, wanton, reckless, or grossly negligent conduct, see [wrongful death statute,] G. L. c. 229, § 2. The "wrong" the Attorney General sought to remedy, by contrast, was the Commonwealth's increased medical expenditures caused by Philip Morris's commission of unfair or deceptive acts or practices in violation of [consumer protection law,] G. L. c. 93A, § 2.

Product liability, like punitive damages, is not a function of common law in Massachusetts, at least formally.  The commonwealth imposes strict product liability through a wide-ranging consumer protection statute, "chapter 93A."  Product liability is effectuated formally as a warranty obligation by eliminating the requirement of contractual privity between plaintiff and defendant.  But from that point, functionally, the courts breathe life into the system with multistate common law norms.

Probably Philip Morris's best argument for claim preclusion arose in the theory that chapter 93A affords treble damages, which were incorporated, in theory, into the MSA, and therefore overlaps with chapter 229 in wrongful death.  But the court distinguished the two statutes.  While both afford punitive recovery, the tests and purposes differ.  Damages under 93A were predicated on commercial practices that caused injury to state interests, while 229 damages, which are not capped, arise from culpability in inflicting personal injury on a decedent in a wrongful death action, here, Fred Laramie.

The court rejected a range of other asserted errors, whether because not error or harmless error, in relation to evidentiary admissions, jury instructions, and closing arguments.  Philip Morris had prevailed in the trial court on plaintiff claims of negligence and civil conspiracy.

With regard to jury instructions, the SJC distinguished product liability in warning defect, which was not plaintiff's theory of liability, from the design defect the plaintiff did claim.  The jury was properly instructed, the court held, that 

congressionally mandated warnings were adequate as a matter of law to warn Mr. Laramie and other members of the public of the hazards associated with smoking. The law, however, does not permit a cigarette manufacturer through its statements or actions to mislead consumers or make misrepresentations about the risks or hazards associated with smoking.

Philip Morris complained that the jury was thereby misled to test for liability in misrepresentation or warning defect.  The excerpted bit strikes me, too, as problematic.  Nevertheless, the SJC wrote that the jury was correctly instructed on the elements, so the instructions were "clear" when "viewed as a whole."

Interesting for torts pedagogy in product liability is the court's recitation of defense theories that were rejected at trial.

In its defense, Philip Morris introduced evidence that there was no adequate, safer alternative design for Marlboro cigarettes. An expert for Philip Morris testified that all cigarettes are dangerous, and that any proposed alternative design was not safer, not acceptable to consumers, or not technologically feasible. Philip Morris maintained that Marlboro cigarettes were not unreasonably dangerous to Laramie because Laramie understood the risks of smoking.

Reports linking smoking to cancer had been published in the 1950s and 1960s, and people had recognized that tobacco was addictive "going back almost [one hundred] years."  Moreover, there was testimony that every pack of Marlboro cigarettes sold between 1970 and 1984 contained a warning label from the Surgeon General that "cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health," and that every pack sold thereafter contained one of four warning labels that are still in use. Cigarette advertisements also were banned from television and radio beginning in January 1971, when Laramie was thirteen or fourteen years old. In addition, since January 1972, every print advertisement for cigarettes has been required to include a warning label similar to those on cigarette packs.

In sum, based on this evidence, Philip Morris argued that Laramie caused his own death because, despite being adequately informed of the health risks of smoking, Laramie chose to smoke, and then chose not to quit smoking.

(Paragraph breaks added.)  The plaintiff overcame the no-alternative-design defense by hypothesizing that Fred Laramie might not have become addicted to a low-nicotine cigarette.  Defense theories in assumption of risk, personal choice, and sufficiency of warning all fell short against the showing of nicotine manipulation.

The case is Laramie v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., No. SJC-13070 (Mass. Sept. 15, 2021) (oral argument at Suffolk Law).  Justice Dalila Argaez Wendlandt authored the opinion for the unanimous panel of six justices.  Disclosure: As an attorney in private practice, I worked on the Philip Morris defense team on tobacco litigation in the 1990s.

Monday, November 18, 2019

It's not just whistleblower law; First Amendment public employee-speech doctrine is in disarray

You might have heard some wrangling in the news about whistleblowers.  They're all the rage, lately, even here and there on this blog.

A big problem for whistleblowers in the public sector is that the U.S. Supreme Court has clearly held that there is no First Amendment protection for whistleblowing in the United States.  So public employees who blow the whistle on public misfeasance or malfeasance have to be prepared to pay for their good intentions with their livelihoods.

Notably, that was the Court's holding in 2006, when a lawyer, Richard Ceballos, suffered retaliation in the office of L.A. District Attorney Gil Garcetti for having disclosed to criminal-defense counsel that a sheriff misrepresented facts in a search warrant affidavit, despite having been admonished to remain silent.  Remember that when Gil Garcetti runs for President.  Even when there is statutory protection, as in the case of that federal whistleblower whom everyone's been talking about, it is extremely difficult to police prohibitions on retaliation, thus the whistleblower's present penchant for anonymity. 

In a recent opinion column in The Hill, Independent Institute Policy Fellow Ronald L. Trowbridge, Ph.D., bemoaned this sorry state of constitutional whistleblower law since Garcetti.

Right.

Well, welcome to the table, Dr. Trowbridge.  Some of us transparency-and-accountability types in the public sector have been living, working, and biting our tongues under Garcetti for more than a dozen years. 

I don't concede that Garcetti applies to me; a footnote in the opinion left the question open as a matter of constitutional law for academics, who sit in a weird place, constitutionally speaking.  I've dared to offer my own constructive criticism here and there.  But often, I stay silent.  And by often, I mean a lot.  For example, you want to know what goes on at a public school inside the ABA accreditation process?  Well wouldn't you, then.  How nice for you.  Talk to the hand.

What we need is not another op-ed bemoaning Garcetti.  We need a way forward.

In 2016, Jerud Butler was reprimanded and demoted in his job at the San Miguel County, Colorado, Road and Bridge Department after he testified truthfully at a child custody hearing involving his sister-in-law and her ex-husband, another employee at the San Miguel County Road and Bridge Department.  His testimony, in a personal capacity, incidentally touched on the hours of operation of the department.  The Tenth Circuit rejected Butler's bid for First Amendment protection, finding Butler an employee of the government, like an employee anywhere else, subject to the whimsy of the employer.

Butler was not a whistleblower.  But Garcetti was not a watershed moment.  Rather, Garcetti was a symptom of an employee-speech doctrine in First Amendment law that has been badly broken since it was invented in Pickering v. Board of Education in 1968.

On behalf of "First Amendment Scholars," including me, Professors Lisa Hoppenjans and Gregory P. Magarian and their student team at the Washington University First Amendment Clinic at St. Louis University Law School filed an amicus brief in support of U.S. Supreme Court cert. in Butler (No. 18-1012).  Butler has got to be a mistaken outcome, even if we think that whistleblowing should be a statutory matter rather than a constitutional right, even under Pickering.

Like Dr. Trowbridge, I hope the Supreme Court at some point will realize the work that needs to be done to make sensible public-employee speech doctrine, whether fixing what we've got or starting from scratch.

Meanwhile I'll take anything that chips away at Garcetti.

Scholar-amici on the Wash. U. brief in Butler included: RonNell Andersen Jones, Associate Dean of Research & Teitelbaum Chair of Law, University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law; Cynthia Boyer, Associate Professor, Institut Maurice Hauriou (Université Toulouse Capitole)/Institut National
Universitaire Champollion; Alan K. Chen, Professor of Law, University of Denver Sturm College
of Law; Eric B. Easton, Professor of Law Emeritus, University of Baltimore School of Law; Craig B. Futterman, Clinical Professor of Law, University of Chicago Law School; Heidi Kitrosser, Robins Kaplan Professor of Law, University of Minnesota Law School; Lyrissa Lidsky, Dean and Judge C.A. Leedy Professor of Law, University of Missouri School of Law; Gregory P. Magarian, Thomas and Karole Green Professor of Law, Washington University in St. Louis School of Law; Helen Norton, Rothgerber Chair in Constitutional Law, University of Colorado School of Law; Richard J. Peltz-Steele, Chancellor Professor, University of Massachusetts Law School; Tamara R. Piety, Professor of
Law, University of Tulsa College of Law.

Amici aligned with First Amendment Scholars in Butler included the National Whistleblower Center, the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, the Duke Law School First Amendment Clinic, and the Government Accountability Project.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Litigation privilege doesn't protect whistleblower counsel, court holds in defamation suit against attorney

The Massachusetts Appeals Court Wednesday affirmed the absolute litigation privilege as a defense to defamation, but rejected its application to a lawyer purporting to represent a whistleblower.

The case arose from a development dispute.  The essence of the alleged defamation concerned a letter from attorney-defendant Edmands accusing defamation plaintiff Patriot of tax fraud and retaliation against the attorney's client for his whistleblowing to the IRS and SEC.  Patriot alleged that Edmands moreover widely republished the accusations on internet platforms, including a whistleblower blog.  The court accepted Patriot's contention that the accusations against it were false.

The litigation privilege is an absolute privilege, so cannot be vitiated by a speaker's common law malice (ill will) or actual malice (knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of truth or falsity).  The litigation protects an attorney acting as an attorney, even before litigation is initiated, but does not protect attorneys "'in counselling and assisting their clients in business matters generally,'" the court quoted precedent.

Edmands failed to establish the basis for the privilege as an evidentiary matter.  No whistleblowing complaints were filed with federal regulators, and the purported client denied representation by Edmands to that end.

Even had whistleblowing occurred, the court was skeptical that the litigation privilege would attach, given that whistleblowing does not necessarily precipitate any administrative or judicial process.  That point is important for attorneys representing whistleblowers.  Attorneys who help client-whistleblowers amplify their accusations in mass media, in even the most up-and-up of circumstances, might expect to find themselves targeted by retaliatory corporate ire.  The attorney should therefore take extra care to interrogate the truth of the whistleblower's claims.

The court remanded to the Superior Court for further proceedings. The case is The Patriot Group, LLC v. Edmands, No. 17-P-1397 (Mass. App. Ct. Nov. 13, 2019).  Blake, Wendlandt,and McDonough, JJ., were on the unanimous panel, Justice McDonough writing.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Whistleblowers call foul, Play the Game

Marcus Carmichael
(Chris Turner CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Whistleblowers are basking in an adoring limelight in the United States right now. They better enjoy it while it lasts, because the American taste for whistleblowing is fickle.

All the attention being paid to whistleblowing in Washington, you would think that whistleblowers are heroes of democratic liberty, Paul Reveres on midnight rides of revelation. Now there’s a second whistleblower, and maybe a third, and, why, people just can’t get in line fast enough to become whistleblowers.

I have to roll my eyes when I hear people waxing poetic over the great tradition of the American whistleblower. Catch those same people on a different day, different issue, or different side of the fence, and they’ll be lashing the whistleblower to the stake and setting their torches to the kindling like it’s the Spanish Inquisition. For much of American history, whistleblowing has been synonymous with disloyalty and treachery.

The Washington whistleblower caused WNYC’s On the Media to replay a 2015 segment in which Brooke Gladstone interviewed language writer Ben Zimmer and consumer protection advocate and civil rights crusader Ralph Nader. The early-20th-century word whistleblowing, Zimmer explained, comes from what it sounds like: a referee blowing the whistle to stop play in event of a penalty. (See Transparency International for the word’s translations, born of other cultural contexts.) No sooner did the word come about that it acquired a dark connotation. It meant, Gladstone said, “to snitch, to rat, to steal.” You can hear that usage, Zimmer pointed out, in the classic film On the Waterfront (1954), in reference to the enemies of organized labor. In this sense, Trump’s “spy” notion is not so far off the mark.



Nader was responsible for turning the word around in the 1970s. He pleaded for insiders to break ranks in his public safety crusade against Big Auto, and he repurposed the term whistleblowing with the positive spin of serving the greater good, despite disloyalty in the short term. So the word is not the thing. Gladstone nailed the salient distinction, which is whether the whistleblowing accords with one’s value judgments. Trump’s traitor is Pelosi’s star witness. Ed Snowden deserves either a presidential medal or an espionage prosecution. Even Upton Sinclair was a duplicitous meatpacking worker.

Blow the Whistle


Our ambivalence about whistleblowers finds expression in law. When we protect whistleblowers at law—common law usually does not—it’s usually a legislative reaction to something awful that happened, when we wonder why no one in the know said anything. While whistleblower protection statutes are prevalent in the United States at state and federal levels, they are often controversial, hardly comprehensive, and likely to pertain only to the public sector. Protection tends to be narrow and sectoral in scope; to depend upon abundant and variable technical prerequisites; and to offer scant shield from the full range of consequences, formal and informal, that the whistleblower faces. Woe to the would-be whistleblower who fails to hire a lawyer in advance to navigate the legal process. The Washington whistleblower was meticulous. The person either is a lawyer or consulted one.

Far from the glamorous escapades of the Hollywood Insider, the real-life whistleblower’s lot in life is lousy. More whistleblowers become infamous than famous, and most become no one significant at all. Typically whistleblowers find themselves, through no fault of their own, in a catch-22. Behind door number one, go with the flow, stay with the pack, look the other way, and sell out your principles. Behind door number two, stand on principle, and probably lose your job, your livelihood, your home, and your friends, alienate your family, and maybe put your life at risk.

To be fair, not all whistleblowers are motivated by altruism, and not all whistleblower motives are altruistic. Sometimes whistleblowers themselves are victims of the misconduct they are reporting. Sometimes they are grinding an unrelated ax against a perpetrator—which doesn’t make the perpetrator less an offender. Whistleblowers’ motives can be complicated. People are complicated. Altruism is a factor. Courage is a constant.

Play the Game


Last week, I had the extraordinary experience of meeting some whistleblowers in world sport. For me, it was the highlight of Play the Game, an initiative and biennial conference of the Danish Institute for Sports Studies, its first meeting outside Europe.  Play the Game aims to raise ethical standards and to promote democracy, transparency, and freedom of expression in world sport.

Whistleblowing in sport might not sound like a big deal, but it is. Consider that transnational sport governors such as the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are among the most powerful non-governmental organizations in the world. Technically they are “nonprofits,” but no one says that with a straight face. Until recently, FIFA and IOC execs sashayed into the offices of presidents, prime ministers, governors, and mayors like they were Regina George’s mean girls on a tear at North Shore High. There were real costs to their shameless greed: global contrails of worthless constructions, impoverished populations, and broken dreams.

That started to change when FIFA and IOC were exposed as corrupt at their cores. Their corruption was exposed by whistleblowers.

Bonita Mersiades (Play the Game CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Bonita Mersiades was a top exec with the Australian Football Federation from 2007 to 2010, when she worked on Australia’s failed bids for the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cup tournaments. She blew the whistle on the extraordinary demands that FIFA placed on would-be hosts and her own country’s willingness to bend the public interest to conform. Those tournaments we know now were awarded to Russia and Qatar upon such rank corruption as resulted in a 2015 raid by U.S. and Swiss law enforcement and dozens of criminal indictments. Mersiades herself was outed when the investigative report of Assistant U.S. Attorney (now N.Y. Judge) Michael Garcia was made public.

At Play the Game, Mersiades described social ostracism in her community, loss of her career in sport administration, burglary of her home, and hacking and online harassment. She wrote about FIFA corruption and her experience in a 2018 book, Whatever It Takes: The Inside Story of the FIFA Way.

Yuliya and Vitaly Stepanov (Play the Game CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Also on the whistleblower panel (below in full) were Yuliya Stepanova and Vitaly Stepanov. Yuliya was a Russian Olympic runner, and Vitaly worked for the Russian anti-doping agency. Together they blew the whistle on Russian doping, breaking open a massive scandal that rocked Russia and the world, exposing not just systematic Russian doping but reckless, if not criminal, indifference in the World Anti-Doping Agency. With good reason, the Stepanovs feared for their lives.  They applied for Canadian asylum and now live in the United States (with their adorable little boy, also in attendance).


Vitaly told a spellbound audience that the stress of the couple’s situation had them on the verge of divorce when, at last, they took the leap into whistleblowing history together. They would have to leave homeland and family behind, and their lives would never be the same. But it was OK, he said, because “after that, … we were united.”

My dinner companions: Mersiades and Dr. Joel Carmichael,
chiropractor to U.S. Olympic athletes
When, over dinner, I lamented the state of patchwork American whistleblower protection law, Mersiades was quick to correct me. It’s much better than Australia, she said. [See UPDATE below.]  In the United States, we do have a somewhat vigorous qui tam field. (Read more at Troxel, Krauss, & Chapman.)  And the federal whistleblower law now at the heart of the impeachment inquiry is better than the yawning void of jeopardy into which FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley stepped when she testified in the Senate on 9/11 failures in 2002. She retired from the FBI two and a half years later.

Mersiades book
Still, it seems to me that as a society, we should be able to do better. When the dust settles around the peculiarly technically adept Washington whistleblower, we might ought wonder why whistleblowers aren’t all around us—at every level of government, and in the private sector. Did no one at Purdue Pharma know about aggressive opioid peddling? We should wonder why, in the land of the First Amendment, there are so many disincentives—legal, social, economic—for anyone to speak out as a citizen on a matter of urgent public interest.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it,” Sinclair said in 1934. That’s why the rule of law must support the apostate who speaks the truth.

The documentary Icarus tells the Russian doping story.
Director Bryan Fogel also spoke on the whistleblowing panel (above) at Play the Game 2019.


For more from Play the Game 2019, see the conference website and the #ptg2019 Twitter feed.

[UPDATE, Oct. 21, at 10:50 a.m. U.S. EDT: A testament to Mersiades's lament that Australian whistleblower protection lags behind democratic demands, witness today's remarkable protest action by Australian newspapers.] 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Policy proposal threatens academic freedom at University of Arkansas

Watchdogs in my former home state of Arkansas have alerted me to a major proposed change to University of Arkansas Board of Trustees tenure policy that threatens faculty academic freedom and tenure.  I wrote on this subject and presented at an AAUP conference some time ago; see "Penumbral Academic Freedom" at SSRN.  I happen to have just started serving here at UMass Dartmouth on a campus-wide committee studying policy related to faculty privileges and responsibilities.  I plan in time to write more about my experience here at UMD.  Meanwhile, though, what is happening at Arkansas, just one instance amid an alarming national trend, needs wider attention.  Simply put, an attack on academic freedom anywhere is an attack on academic freedom everywhere.

As is widely known both in and outside the academy, this is not a happy time for freedom of expression on the university campus.  (See this New York Times op-ed from yesterday, by University of Oregon President Michael Schill.)  Professor Catherine Ross at GW Law wrote an excellent piece recently for 66:4 Journal of Legal Education on "Assaultive Words and Constitutional Norms," explaining the clash between First Amendment freedom of speech and lately abundant and popular efforts to regulate speech that is normatively objectionable, such as hate speech.  The problem extends to our complicated American relationship with whistleblowers: compare the Obama Administration's "war on whistleblowers" (Guardian) with the later pardoning of Chelsea Manning.

In the academic sphere, the problem has played out in attack on faculty and faculty privileges, such as tenure, that are designed to preserve the university as "the quintessential marketplace of ideas."  The corporatization of the university and the infantilization of faculty have been documented and described, for example by Johns Hopkins Professor Benjamin Ginsberg in his 2013 book, The Fall of the Faculty (Amazon).

My colleague Professor Joshua Silverstein at the University of Arkansas Little Rock Law School wrote an excellent missive to his faculty on the proposed changes to Arkansas board policy.  He explained how the policy changes conflict with established AAUP norms.  Especially problematic is a provision that would allow termination of faculty for "unwillingness to work productively with colleagues."  As Professor Silverstein aptly observes, this is administrator-speak for what the AAUP long ago described and condemned as a "collegiality" requirement.

That provision would allow the termination of a faculty member who ignores instruction to teach the politically correct or anti-intellectual version of a subject in the classroom; who refuses to give passing grades for failing performance, when campus bean counters fear losing the student's tuition dollars; or who objects to the elimination of disciplines such as philosophy and foreign language as the university looks to budget according to revenue potential rather than academic mission.  In the corporatized university, there is no room for faculty governance and less for freedom of thought.  Faculty are expected to toe the line and make the widgets.  That's a frightening vision of the university, especially when one contemplates the impact on young adults of modeling automatous obedience in a purported democracy.

Professor Silverstein has given me permission to excerpt his missive, below.  His redline-and-comment version of the board policy I have parked here.  I note that Silverstein had to create the redline version himself; only a clean revision was distributed.  The redline version, he warns, might have mistakes that are artifacts of conversion from PDF.  The clean revision proposal is here.  The current rule can be found here.  Silverstein disclaims that he only received the proposal last weekend, so his review is not comprehensive.  Also, these comments pertain only to changes to the board policy on tenure.  Other proposed changes would affect employment periods and distinguished professorships.

The academy must stand together to repel attacks on tenure.  And we in the legal academy have an especial responsibility to heed the call.

--


Colleagues:

Last week, the faculty senate received proposed changes to the UA System rules regarding tenure (Board of Trustees Policy 405.1), employment periods (Policy 405.4), and university and distinguished professorships (Policy 470.1).   This email concerns the proposed changes to policy 405.1.  As the subject of my email indicates, I believe that the proposed changes are a grave threat to tenure and academic freedom within the entire UA System.  Most importantly, the revisions dramatically expand the grounds justifying termination for cause.  They do so by (1) effectively establishing collegiality as a basis for termination, and (2) permitting dismissal after a single unsatisfactory rating in an annual review.  In addition, the revisions critically weaken the procedural protections available at university committee hearings regarding terminations.  If these changes are adopted, the damage to the University of Arkansas will be wide-ranging and likely permanent.  It is thus imperative that we speak out about the threat.

*  *  *


1.  The University may not retroactively alter tenure rights.

In my opinion, the proposed changes to 405.1 cannot retroactively alter the rights granted under existing tenure contracts.  Well-established principles of contract law and constitutional law firmly support this conclusion.  Thus, the changes to 405.1, if adopted, will only apply to faculty not yet tenured.  However, I have not conducted exhaustive legal research on this point.  In addition, while nothing in the proposal suggests that the university believes it can—or intends to—apply the changes retroactively, an express admission on these points is the only way we can be sure of the thinking of the Board of Trustees and the rest of the central administration.

Even if the changes are applied solely in a prospective manner, that only modestly reduces the damage that the new rules will cause.  For example, all new hires will be subject to the revised standards.  That is a serious problem.  The changes will make it more difficult to hire the best entry-level and lateral faculty.  And those who are hired will possess weakened tenure protections and more limited academic freedom, both of which will result in numerous harms to teaching, research, and service within the UA system.

2.  The proposal dramatically expands the scope of what constitutes “cause” for purposes of terminating faculty

a.  Introduction.

Let me start by highlighting the critical textual changes to the definition of “cause.”  The current definition is set forth in section I of Policy 405.1 (which is on page 2 of the policy):

“Cause” is defined as conduct which demonstrates that the faculty member lacks the ability or willingness to perform his or her duties or to fulfill his or her responsibilities to the University; examples of such conduct include (but are not limited to) incompetence, neglect of duty, intellectual dishonesty, and moral turpitude.

Compare that to the revised definition, set out in section I of the proposal on pages 1-2 (and on pages 1-2 of my redline):

Cause - Cause is defined as conduct that demonstrates the faculty member lacks the willingness or ability to perform duties or responsibilities to the University. A faculty member may be disciplined, or dismissed, for cause on grounds including but not limited to unsatisfactory performance or (1) professional dishonesty or plagiarism; (2) discrimination, including harassment or retaliation, prohibited by law or university policy; (3) unethical conduct related to fitness to engage in teaching, research, service/outreach and/or administration, or otherwise related to the faculty member’s employment or public employment; (4) misuse of appointment or authority to exploit others; (5) theft or intentional misuse of property; (6) incompetence, job abandonment, pattern of disruptive conduct or unwillingness to work productively with colleagues, or refusal to perform reasonable duties; (7) threats or acts of violence or retaliatory conduct; or (8) violation of University policy, or state or federal law, substantially related to performance of faculty responsibilities or fitness to serve the University

I have highlighted two pieces of the revised definition.  First, I highlighted the addition of “unsatisfactory performance” near the beginning of the definition.  Second, I highlighted certain language in item 6.  Section 2.b. of this email addresses item 6.  Section 2.c. of this email addresses the insertion of “unsatisfactory performance.”  There is additional language in the proposal relating to the two pieces of the definition that I highlighted.  That language is discussed in the sections below corresponding to the highlighted language.

b.  Establishing collegiality as a basis for termination dramatically reduces tenure protections and academic freedom.

The language I highlighted in item 6 is very dangerous.  “Pattern of disruptive conduct” is a deeply subjective standard.  “Unwillingness to work productively with colleagues” is worse.  These standards create a serious potential for abuse.  It takes little imagination to see how the standards could be employed to stifle academic freedom by dismissing or otherwise punishing tenured faculty on the pretextual grounds that they are “disruptive” and/or “uncollegial.”  Note that including a collegiality requirement in tenure standards violates AAUP principles.  This change would thus move the UA System out of compliance with the AAUP.  See On Collegiality as a Criterion for Faculty Evaluation at page 1 (and throughout)), available here.

The importance of the changes in item (6) is highlighted by the fact that the “work productively” collegiality standard is repeated in the section of 405.1 that concerns academic freedom.  The proposal amends section IV.A.14.c, on page 10 by inserting the following language: “Faculty are expected to work productively with colleagues in carrying out the mission of the University.”  By adding this to the academic freedom section, it is clear that the drafters intend the language to circumscribe the scope of academic freedom everywhere within the University of Arkansas.

c.  The proposal permits termination after a single unsatisfactory rating in an annual review; this also dramatically reduces tenure protection and academic freedom.

Under the current standard, termination for performance issues may result only from “incompetence,” “neglect of duty,” or the like.  Under the proposed standard, a mere finding of “unsatisfactory performance” in a single annual review is sufficient grounds to warrant termination.  That is a profound change.

To elaborate, the proposal inserts new standards regarding annual reviews in section V.A.9.  Here is the pertinent language:

Any campus procedures regarding post-tenure review shall not allow greater than one academic year, with active cooperation from the faculty member, for an overall unsatisfactory performance rating to be substantially remedied prior to a recommendation of dismissal on the basis of unsatisfactory performance. In other words, if a faculty member’s overall performance is evaluated as unsatisfactory for an academic year, any improvement plans or other remedial measures are expected to result in a satisfactory evaluation by the end of the following academic year; if not, the faculty member may be issued a notice of dismissal on twelve months’ notice as provided for in this policy. Again, such period of time for remediation assumes the active cooperation and engagement of the faculty member; otherwise, a shortened timeframe may be utilized.

On the surface, this provision appears to provide that termination is only permissible after two unsatisfactory ratings.  In the first yellow block, the provision states that “any improvement plans or other remedial measures are expected to result in a satisfactory evaluation by the end of the following academic year; if not, the faculty member may be issued a notice of dismissal . . .”  (Emphasis added.)  That suggests that two unsatisfactory ratings are required.  But now consider the last sentence of the language I quoted, also highlighted in yellow: “Again, such period of time for remediation assumes the active cooperation and engagement of the faculty member; otherwise, a shortened timeframe may be utilized.”  (Emphasis added.)  This means that if the university, in its subjective judgment, determines that a person is not being sufficiently “cooperative” or “engaged” in the remediation plan, termination is possible well before the end of the first academic year after the unsatisfactory rating.  In short, a single unsatisfactory rating, combined with a judgment of insufficient “cooperation” or “engagement,” can result in termination. 

That is a dramatic change from the existing rule.  To repeat, the current standard requires “incompetence,” “neglect of duty,” or something comparable.  Those words denote performance that is considerably worse than suggested by a mere finding of “unsatisfactory.”  Indeed, “incompetence” and “neglect of duty” are much worse than multiple findings of unsatisfactory performance.

This change also violates AAUP standards.  For example, in a report regarding Greenville College in Illinois, the AAUP said this:

As the writers of the 1958 Statement on Procedural Standards had assumed, most institutions have indeed developed their own standards of what constitutes adequate cause for dismissal.  They most commonly tend to be “incompetence,” “professional misconduct,” “gross neglect,” and the like.  In comparison, Greenville’s standard of “unsatisfactory service” not only is nebulous and subjective, but also sets too low a bar for adequate protection of tenure and academic freedom . . . .

Report, Academic Freedom and Tenure: Greenville College (Illinois) at page 86, available here.

Likewise, the AAUP’s formal statement on post-tenure review explains that the appropriate standard for “cause” is “incompetence, malfeasance, or failure to perform . . . duties.”  Post-tenure Review: An AAUP Response at page 230, available here.  The report proceeds to explain that if “the standard of dismissal is shifted from ‘incompetence’ to ‘unsatisfactory performance,’ . . . then tenured faculty must recurrently ‘satisfy’ administrative officers rather than the basic standards of their profession,” which fatally undermines academic freedom.  See id.

As these AAUP documents make clear, the proposed change of the cause standard from “incompetence” and “neglect of duty” to mere “unsatisfactory” performance is fundamentally inconsistent with core principles of academic freedom.  And that would be true even if the proposal required multiple findings of unsatisfactory performance.  As I explained, however, a single finding of unsatisfactory performance can justify termination under the proposal (when combined with a finding that the faculty member is not sufficiently cooperative or engaged in remediation of the unsatisfactory performance).

3.  The proposal critically weakens procedural protections.

Section IV.C. of 405.1 concerns the procedures for dismissing a tenured or tenure-track faculty member.  Part of the termination process is a hearing before an impartial committee.  The proposal revises section IV.C.5., on page 14, to strip away the committee’s ability to grant procedural protections equivalent to those afforded in a court of law.  See comment j7 on page 12 of the redline, which explains this point in more detail.

* * *

Note that the redline contains a few other substantive comments.

As I said, this proposal is a striking attack on academic freedom and tenure.  It is thus imperative that we make our voices heard.

Josh
Joshua M. Silverstein
Professor of Law
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
William H. Bowen School of Law
1201 McMath Ave.
Little Rock, AR 72202-5142