Two Tech faculty members who have filed a lawsuit against the university’s provost recently requested a summary judgment in federal court.
Attorney Robert Bigelow, representing Dr. Julia Gruber and Andrew Smith — associate professor of German and English instructor respectively — claims the university used surveillance technology to “unmask and punish” them for speaking out anonymously on “matters of public concern.”
The federal lawsuit filed in October 2021 by Gruber and Smith alleges retaliation by Provost Dr. Lori Bruce while they exercised their First Amendment rights.
Gruber and Smith allege they have suffered “adverse action intended to chill their speech … that is protected under the First Amendment” and were denied procedural due process.
The actions taken against Smith and Gruber came because 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 commissioner, and Gruber, along with local indigenous friends, had campaigned against it.
The fliers made reference to Donadio’s involvement in the Tech’s student chapter of 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.
“This litigation was sparked by a public debate on racism,” Bigelow said in court documents.
In depositions over the matter, Smith said he perceived TPUSA as a “national hate group” that promotes right-wing ideologies, to which Donadio stated, “It’s not difficult to find connections between Turning Point USA and explicit bigoted discrimination.”
“Smith intended the flier to be a parody of what TPUSA had been doing with its Professor Watchlist and mirrored the language TPUSA frequently uses in its own efforts to unmask others,” Bigelow said.
Bigelow argues, in this case, there is no dispute of material fact and that the Gruber and Smith have “met their burden of demonstrating” its case in First Amendment retaliation. He requests the court to declare Bruce violated Gruber and Smith’s rights and to reverse all sanctions brought against them.