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Tech Faculty File For Preliminary Injunction To Remove Sanctions

Dr.Gruber and Mr. Smith are suing Tech on the grounds of the first Amendment. Photo by Elliot Payne.

Two Tech faculty members suing the university’s provost filed a motion for a preliminary injunction earlier this year, requesting the court to restrain the enforcement of sanctions imposed upon them. However, the provost’s attorneys argue that such an injunction is not necessary.

The federal lawsuit filed in October 2021 by Dr. Julia Gruber and Andrew Smith alleges retaliation by university officials while exercising their First Amendment rights.

According to the suit, Gruber and Smith suffered “adverse action intended to chill their speech … that is protected under the First Amendment” and were denied procedural due process.

“[Bruce] is the one who imposed the sanctions that include non-monetary punishment, and she allegedly did so in violation of Plaintiffs’ free speech right and without due process,” the complaint said.

The actions taken against Smith and Gruber came as a result of fliers, allegedly made by Smith, of another Tech professor, Andrew Donadio, an assistant professor of nursing and Putnam County commissioner. 

The fliers, Smith and Gruber have said, were the result of an interaction in February of 2021 at a Putnam County School Board meeting where the governing board decided to not form a mascot renaming committee for Algood Middle School – which still holds the mascot name “Redskins.”

Donadio had been vocally in favor of keeping the mascot in his capacity as county commission, and Gruber – along with local indigenous friends – had campaigned against it.

The flier also referred to Donadio’s involvement as the advisor to a student organization on Tech’s campus, Turning Point USA.

TPUSA is a national organization founded in 2012 that claims to “identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of freedom, free markets, and limited government.”

At the same time, however, the organization has a professor “watchlist” that has been perceived by many as a scare tactic used against so-called liberal educators.

The flier that was made by Smith, and distributed by both Smith and Gruber, read as follows:

“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 their teachers. Their organization created a national ‘Professor Watchlist’ to harass and intimidate progressive educators, including many women, African-American and Muslim professors.

“Professor Donadio and Turning Point USA. You are on our list. Your hate & hypocrisy are not welcome at Tennessee Tech. No unity with racists,” the flier stated. 

Following a formal investigation into the flier by university officials, sanctions were placed on Gruber and Smith in May of 2021.

Sanctions identified in the lawsuit filed by Gruber and Smith include not being allowed to participate in study abroad activities, namely faculty-led field trips with students; not being eligible for non-instructional assignments; revocation of a grant awarded to Dr. Gruber; requiring meetings to discuss classroom behavior; undergoing observation in the classroom; and threat of termination.

Smith and Gruber also allege that they were denied a $1,000 bonus because of the sanctions, and that they are also now ineligible for two years of salary increases.

The recent motion for the preliminary injunction to remove the sanctions states Gruber and Smith have a strong likelihood of success on the merits; they would suffer “irreparable harm” without the injunction; issuing the injunction would not cause substantial harm to others; and that “the public interest would be served by granting the injunction.”

The Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery III, representing Bruce, however claims Gruber and Smith’s request “falls short in light of their own delay,” as the sanctions were imposed in May of 2021.

Robert Bigelow, representing Gruber and Smith, asks the court to quickly grant the injunction “so that the punishments in place will not affect yet another school year.”

“[They] very much desire to serve as faculty advisors for the student organizations they love and have guided in years past,” he said. “They also hope to be able to participate in faculty-led field trips and receive raises. And, in the case of Dr. Gruber, she wants to take advantage of an opportunity to pursue a grant like the one she was awarded but was unable to accept because of the sanctions. This is the irreparable harm [they] seek to avoid.”