Federal Court Protects an Adjunct’s Complaints About Working Conditions

October 31, 2014

A federal appeals court has ruled that the First Amendment protected an adjunct instructor’s public complaints about how her employer, an Illinois community college, deals with people in her position.

In a decision handed down on Thursday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit unanimously held that the First Amendment precluded Moraine Valley Community College from firing Robin Meade, a part-time business instructor and adjunct-union head, for telling an international organization that her college mistreats adjuncts in ways that hurt students’ education.

The sort of retaliation alleged in Ms. Meade’s lawsuit is a common fear among adjunct instructors, who lack tenure and, at most colleges, can be removed simply by being denied work in the future. Such retaliation appears especially likely to be directed at adjunct instructors with union-leadership positions, which put them at odds with administrators. At the time of her dismissal, in August 2013, Ms. Meade had been president of the Moraine Valley Adjunct Faculty Organization, a union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.

Ms. Meade’s lawsuit asserted that she had run afoul of her institution’s administration after it asked her to write a letter to the League for Innovation in the Community College in support of the college’s reapplication for membership on the organization’s board. But instead of writing the sort of complimentary letter requested, she sent a letter to the league saying she could not support her college’s bid for renewed board membership.

The letter accused Moraine Valley, among other things, of treating its adjunct faculty members as "a disposable resource" and "a separate, lower class of people" who often are left "to fend for themselves."

On August 22, 2013, two days after sending her letter, Ms. Meade received a notice of job termination from Andrew Duren, Moraine Valley’s executive vice president. His letter said her own letter to the League for Innovation had been forwarded to Moraine Valley’s administration, was "replete with misrepresentations and falsehoods," and contained "irresponsible rhetoric."

Mr. Duren’s letter stated that Ms. Meade was being terminated immediately because her behavior was "disruptive and not consistent with the best interests of the college." She was later barred from the campus.

The appeals court held that both the college’s treatment of its adjunct instructors and how its practices affect education are matters of public concern, entitling Ms. Meade to First Amendment speech protections in discussing them. The panel’s decision said her possible personal motives behind her complaints did not in any way undermine the protections afforded them under the U.S. Constitution.

The appeals panel overturned a lower court’s decision this year to dismiss Ms. Meade’s lawsuit. In Thursday’s ruling, the panel held that the college owed Ms. Meade due process as a result of a letter in which it had assigned her courses and told her what she would be paid.

The panel directed the lower court to reconsider the case.

Mark Horstmeyer, a spokesman for the college, in Palos Hills, Ill., a southwest suburb of Chicago, refused on Thursday to say whether his institution planned to appeal the Seventh Circuit decision, citing a policy against commenting on pending litigation.