A federal judge has dismissed a discrimination and defamation lawsuit filed by Gallaudet University’s former chief diversity officer against the university and two out lesbian faculty members who were accused of damaging her reputation by implying she held anti-gay views.
The lawsuit stemmed from an October 2012 decision by the university’s president to suspend Angela McCaskill from her job as Associate Provost of Diversity and Inclusion after news surfaced that she signed a petition to place Maryland’s same-sex marriage law on the ballot in a voter referendum.
McCaskill, a Maryland resident, stated at the time that she signed the petition when it was being circulated at her church. She said her intention was to allow Maryland voters to decide on the gay marriage question and that she had taken no public position on the issue.
Some of the university’s gay students expressed concern that McCaskill’s decision to sign the petition was contrary to her role as chief diversity officer, which they said called for her to be sensitive to students and faculty who supported marriage equality.
The lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, accused Gallaudet faculty members Martina “MJ” Bienvenu and her partner Kendra Smith of pressuring Gallaudet President T. Alan Hurwitz into violating the D.C. Human Rights Act by illegally suspending McCaskill.
The lawsuit called the suspension a form of retaliation against McCaskill for her decision to exercise her constitutional right to sign a petition on a pending civic matter.
In a 24-page opinion handed down on April 14, U.S. District Court Judge James E. Boasberg approved a motion by Gallaudet’s attorneys calling for the dismissal of the case on grounds that McCaskill “has not sufficiently pled facts to support any of her claims” of retaliation or discrimination.
Among other things, McCaskill’s attorney, J. Wyndal Gordon, argued that the university’s decision to suspend McCaskill for signing the petition violated a provision of the D.C. Human Rights Act that bans discrimination based on “political affiliation.”
But Boasberg noted that the Human Rights Act defines “political affiliation” as belonging to or endorsing a political party. He said that provision of the act clearly didn’t apply to the university’s action toward McCaskill.
The judge similarly ruled that the university’s decision to suspend McCaskill because it believed her decision to sign a petition placing the gay marriage law before voters, where it could have been overturned, did not violate the Human Rights Act’s ban on discrimination based on her religion, race, or marital status as she claimed in the lawsuit.
McCaskill stated in her lawsuit that lesbian faculty member Bienvenu confronted her at a meeting and criticized her for signing an “anti-gay” petition.
McCaskill “attempted to shoehorn a First Amendment argument into her complaint against Gallaudet by dressing it up as an employment discrimination allegation,” Boasberg said in his decision.
“While a citizen has an unfettered right to petition her government, such a constitutional claim aimed at Gallaudet cannot succeed here, as the university and its employees are private parties not subject to the First Amendment’s strictures,” he said.
Boasberg’s ruling dismissing the lawsuit came several months after Gordon, McCaskill’s attorney, dismissed Bienvenu and Smith from the lawsuit while raising the possibility of filing a separate lawsuit against them in D.C. Superior Court.
Gordon couldn’t immediately be reached to determine whether he and McCaskill plan to file a separate lawsuit against Bienvenu and Smith. Justin M. Flint, the attorney representing Bienvenu and Smith, didn’t immediately return a call from the Blade seeking comment.