Idaho Supreme Court rules ISU prof had free speech protection for newspaper letters

From the AP/Idaho State Journal

POCATELLO, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho Supreme Court has upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by an Idaho State University professor who claims he was wrongfully terminated, but ruled that a lower court wrongly found the former professor, Habib Sadid, had no First Amendment protection for his comments in a local newspaper critical of the university’s administration.

Faculty leaders at the southeastern Idaho school were pleased with the decision from the Supreme Court, which found that Sadid was not the victim of retaliation and that his employment with the public university did not strip him of his right to free speech as an individual.

“We view it as a massive win,” said biology professor David Delehanty, who holds a faculty leadership post at the university and is a member of the American Federation of Teachers. “The interest of all these organizations is free speech.”

Sadid was suspended from the university in August 2009 and terminated a month later for what administrators called unprofessional and insubordinate conduct. But Sadid said his history of speaking out about campus problems led to his termination; he had written letters to the editor and guest columns and ran a paid ad in the local newspaper with his criticisms.

His legal battle over his termination has gained financial support from groups including the American Association of University Professors, the American Federation of Teachers and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

While the lower court Sadid’s criticisms of his employer did not involve issues of public concern, the Idaho Supreme Court found that the professor’s critique of plans to create a medical school at the university did constitute a matter of public concern. It also found that the published criticisms weren’t “pursuant to his official duties” as a public employee, which would have eliminated his free-speech protections against workplace retaliation.

“There is no evidence showing that Plaintiff’s official duties included making public statements on behalf of the University regarding the subject matter of his letters, nor is there evidence that his employment responsibilities included creating the statements that were published in the newspaper,” wrote Idaho Justice Daniel Eismann in the court’s unanimous opinion. “Therefore, his speech was as a private citizen.”

Sadid sued the university in state court in 2008 while he was still employed at the school, but the case was dismissed; he claimed then that he was retaliated against for publicly voicing his discontent with administration policies, including by not being appointed chairman of the university’s Department of Engineering. The court found no evidence that he was retaliated against at that point. Sadid has other state and federal lawsuits pending over his dismissal.

Officials at the Pocatello university lauded the decision of the high court to affirm the dismissal of the 2008 case. “We’re pleased with both the decisions of the Idaho Supreme Court and the district court,” Kent Tingey, vice president for university advancement, told the Idaho State Journal (http://bit.ly/qPO7Yr ).

From the AP/Idaho State Journal

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