East Georgia College Settles Lawsuit for $50,000 After Firing Professor Who Criticized Sexual Harassment Policy
September 6, 2011
East Georgia College (EGC) has paid $50,000 to Professor Thomas Thibeault and his attorneys after firing Thibeault and having him escorted away by police for criticizing the school's sexual harassment policy. Thibeault was reinstated due to lack of evidence, but EGC President John Bryant Black refused to renew Thibeault's faculty appointment. Ultimately, Thibeault sued, leading the college to settle last month.
"East Georgia College fired Professor Thibeault and had the police take him away, then changed its story, dropped that case for lack of evidence, reprimanded him for unspecified 'offensive' speech, and got rid of him," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said in today's press release. "And all of this got started when Thibeault stood up for due process rights for the accused in the school's sexual harassment policy."
Thibeault's ordeal started shortly after an August 5, 2009, faculty training session on the college's sexual harassment policy during which he related a story about another professor and asked, "What provision is there in the sexual harassment policy to protect the accused against complaints which are malicious or, in this case, ridiculous?" Vice President for Legal Affairs Mary Smith, who was conducting the session, replied that there was no such provision to protect the accused, so Thibeault responded that "the policy itself is flawed."
This seems pretty tame, but one of the riskiest things one can do on today's campus is question administrative policies, particularly when they deal with sexual harassment. The next day, according to Thibeault's complaint, "Smith began a retaliatory crusade against Thibeault. Smith summoned numerous EGC faculty and staff members to her office and demanded that they provide information about their interactions with Thibeault during his tenure with EGC." The day after that, Thibeault was summoned to President Black's office. According to Thibeault's written account of the meeting, which Black received and to our knowledge never disputed, Black told Thibeault that he "was a divisive force in the college" and that he must resign by 11:30 a.m. that day or be fired and have his supposed "long history of sexual harassment ... made public." Needless to say, this "long history" took Professor Thibeault quite by surprise.
Black added that Police Chief Drew Durden would escort Thibeault from campus and that Black had notified the local police that Thibeault should be arrested for trespassing if he returned. Thibeault was (unsurprisingly) never presented with any charges against him or given a chance to present a defense. Refusing to resign, Thibeault understood that he was fired, and Durden escorted him from campus.
Black also sent Thibeault a letter, dated August 7, 2009, notifying Thibeault that his contract would not be renewed for the 2010–2011 academic year. Most likely realizing that he had violated college policy, Black soon began attempting to rewrite history, changing the story of what he had done to Thibeault. In a letter on August 25, 2009, he wrote that Thibeault had actually been suspended, not terminated. Despite the lack of evidence, Black also wrote that a reviewing committee found "sufficient evidence to support your suspension." Black added that Thibeault was about to be terminated for sexual harassment, that the charges finally would be sent upon request, and that Thibeault finally could request a hearing.
FIRE outlined many of these shocking violations of due process and freedom of speech in a letter to then-University System of Georgia Chancellor Erroll B. Davis Jr. on August 27, 2009, but Davis did not respond.
FIRE took Thibeault's case public, launching a national media campaign on September 15, 2009. Under significant scrutiny, Black finally reversed course, informing Thibeault in a letter sent October 20 that "I have made the decision that the evidence does not warrant the charge of sexual harassment."
Even then, Black added to the violations of Thibeault's rights, stating that the letter was a "reprimand to you for the use of offensive language and angry outbursts in your past interactions with your colleagues." Once again, the reprimand failed to provide Thibeault with any evidence, notice, hearing, or witnesses.
Furthermore, Black never withdrew his punishment of Thibeault, and EGC did not renew Thibeault's contract. On August 5, 2010, Thibeault filed a lawsuit against Black, Smith, and the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia.
In a settlement reached last month, Thibeault and his attorneys received $50,000, Black agreed to provide Thibeault with a letter of reference, and the Board of Regents will purge all documents "relating to Thibeault's termination" from his personnel file and all work history records. The defendants also agreed not to discuss those documents with others.
This is an important victory for those who, like FIRE, believe that universities should have to treat their students and professors with a modicum of fairness and in a generally predictable way. A state university is not a fiefdom for those who run it. It is an agency of the state government, funded by your tax dollars. As such, students and their professors deserve to have their rights taken seriously by those entrusted by the public to administer our public institutions of higher education.