On April 14, 2021, Julia Gruber, Associate Professor of German, and Andrew Smith, an Instructor of English and religious studies, were found to be in violation of Tech policy 600, code of conduct.
This was a result of an investigation into flyers they posted on campus accusing Andrew Donadio, assistant professor of nursing, of being a racist and bringing a “national hate group” to Tech’s campus.
Gruber and Smith requested reconsideration of the ruling in their investigation, but they were denied by Claire Stinson, vice president for planning and finance.
“Everything our attorney Robb Bigelow said in his conclusion, still pertains to this case, regardless of that rejection. Much due process remains, now that this matter sits with academic affairs and Provost Bruce,” Smith said.
Gruber and Smith were first introduced to Donadio and Turning Point USA in a faculty senate meeting where they discussed the organization being brought to Tech’s campus.
Turning Point USA is a conservative, right-wing non-profit organization. The club was made an official campus organization in January 2021 and Donadio is the faculty adviser.
On February 4, 2021, Gruber attended a Putnam County board of education meeting regarding changing the Algood Middle School “Redskins” mascot. The Algood Middle school mascot has been a topic of controversy in the county since national conversation arose on the racist history behind the term “redskin”.
Gruber has been an active part of trying to get the mascot changed. She and others fighting for the change were hoping a committee would be formed to discuss a new name.
Donadio, a Putnam County commissioner, was also in attendance of the board of education meeting with County Commissioners Joseph Iwanyszan and Jordan Iwanyszan.
“One of the school board members made a motion to form a committee, and there was not a secondary … As the school board member for the district of Algood read her statement, she said she was a proud redskin herself … And as she finished, there was loud clapping and cheering right behind me. Mr. Donadio and two other county commissioners were clapping loudly and cheered that decision,” Gruber said, “I was really disturbed by that, just by the clapping and cheering. I thought it was inappropriate. It was offensive. It was hostile.”
After the Board of Education meeting, Gruber described the event to Smith.
“They are teaching hate to their children through this mascot and the school is endorsing hate through this mascot. And something broke inside me that night,” Smith said.
After feeling so strongly about the events from the meeting, Smith made a flyer about Donadio and the on-campus organization he advises, Turning Point USA.
The flyer read, “This racist college professor thought it would be a great idea to help start a Tennessee Tech chapter for this national hate group, where racist students can unite to harass, threaten, intimidate, and terrorize persons of color, feminists, liberals, and the like, especially [sic] their teachers. Their organization created a national ‘Professor Watchlist’ to harass and intimidate progressive educators, including many women, African-American, and Muslim professors.”
The flyer then went on to read, “Professor Donadio and Turning Point USA. You are on our list. Your hate & hypocrisy are not welcome at Tennessee Tech. No Unity With Racists. Hate Speech Is Not Free Speech.”
“He made that flyer, and he shared it with me and my first impression was that it was harsh … At the same time, I think I was so outraged that it seemed to be a good idea,” Gruber said.
On February 5, Gruber and Smith distributed the flyers in Bell Hall, the nursing building, and the University Center.
“I put some [flyers] face down. So that already shows you, I wasn’t completely sure that it was a good idea,” Gruber said.
Gruber said she was in no way trying to conceal her identity. She had second thoughts about distributing them and went to pick them back up later that day, but some flyers had already been taken.
Donadio was notified by a worker in Bell Hall who picked up the flyer. Donadio had also been told about some possible Facebook posts directed at him from Gruber earlier on February 5.
“[The worker] sent me a copy of the flyer, and I was like, well, that’s interesting. He’s like, I saw somebody in the building who probably shouldn’t have been here on a Friday afternoon at four o’clock, and I’m like, don’t tell me, let me guess, Gruber,” Donadio said.
Donadio immediately contacted his supervisor and called campus police. His complaint alleged that Smith and Gruber were in violation of Tennessee Tech Policy 202, Academic Freedom and Responsibility, Policy 207, Tenured Faculty, and Policy 600, Code of Conduct.
“I had no clue [about the disapproval of Turning Point USA.] This thing came out of nowhere … They made this an attack on the students of Turning Point USA,” Donadio said.
On February 24, Smith and Gruber were notified of the investigation into their distribution of the flyers.
The investigation concluded on April 15. Smith and Gruber were found in violation of Policy 600.
Policy 600, code of conduct, section III reads, “Tennessee Tech relies on the ethical and responsible conduct of all employees. Employees are expected to conduct themselves fairly, honestly, in good faith, and in accordance with the highest ethical and professional standards and to comply with applicable laws, regulations, contractual obligations, and Tennessee Tech policies.”
Employees are expected to be committed to creating an environment that promotes academic freedom, diversity, fair treatment, and respect for all faculty, staff, students, and the public.”
Smith and Gruber received a letter in which Stinson concurred in the findings listed in the investigation memorandum and turned them over to the Provost for disciplinary action. They had five days to submit a request for reconsideration.
The request submitted by Smith and Gruber listed four main points for the reconsideration of the Vice President’s decision.
The first was that “Tennessee Tech Policy 141 clearly does not apply.” Policy 141 “describes Tennessee Tech’s policy on unlawful discrimination, harassment, and the resolution of complaints of discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, color, religion, creed, ethnic or national origin, sex, disability, age, veteran status, genetic information, and any other category protected by federal or state civil rights laws.”
Smith, Gruber, and their attorney, Robb Bigelow, argue that none of the categories discussed in the policy exist in the investigation.
The second argument made was, “The conclusion that ‘the flyer was intended to harass, intimidate, and threaten not only Complainant but other faculty, staff, and students whose views and opinions were contrary to those held by Respondents; is unsupported and false.”
The third point was that the flyer was protected under free speech. The final point in the request was the investigation as a whole was incomplete.
Their request was denied on April 20. The Provost has yet to determine the disciplinary actions.
Mike Heistand, Student Press Law Center Senior Legal Counsel, spoke on policy 600 and free speech in this case.
“[Policy 600 is] really squishy language and courts don’t like that stuff, especially if that’s the policy they’re using,” Heistand said.
Heistand went on to say that the university can ban unlawful speech, if they consider the flyer to fall under that category.
“There may be some basis … claiming that the poster somehow defamed [Donadio], or unlawfully targeted him,” Heistand said.
For the students of Turning Point USA, Heistand said that because of the size of the club, a libel or defamation case would most likely be considered group libel, which prohibits them from suing for individual defamation.
“The university is currently following its personnel policy and procedures. It is our practice not to comment on internal employment matters,” Karen Lykins, Tech’s Chief Communication Officer, said.