Judge dismisses diversity officer’s lawsuit against Gallaudet University

Evan Gahr | Investigative Journalist

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed against Gallaudet University by the school’s diversity officer, who the college demoted after she signed an anti-gay marriage petition.

The dismissal effectively confirms the worries of gay marriage opponents, who say that releasing the names on ballot petitions leaves signatories vulnerable to retaliation.

Some states have provisions that prohibit discrimination against ballot signatories, but the District of Columbia — home to Gallaudet University — provides protection only for D.C. ballot measures.

The acclaimed school for the deaf suspended and then demoted Angela McCaskill after a lesbian professor discovered her name on the petition to put “Proposition 6” — which would have overturned Maryland’s legalization of gay marriage — on the November 2012 Maryland ballot.

McCaskill, the first black deaf woman to get a Ph.D from Gallaudet, sued the university last year for illegal discrimination based on race, religion, marital status and political views.

But Judge James Boasberg ruled on April 14 that the treatment McCaskill alleged — including harassment by a professor who “belittled” her Christian beliefs — was not illegal.

“Any Mistreatment McCaskill suffered, though, was not based upon her sexual orientation, her marital status, or her race. If the mistreatment occurred, it was based on her decision to sign a political petition,” Boasberg said.

Boasberg said that, as a private employee, McCaskill was not entitled to a free speech protection.

“Plaintiff has attempted to shoehorn a First Amendment argument into her Complaint against Gallaudet by dressing it up as an employment-discrimination allegation,” Boasberg ruled. “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.”

Boasberg also rejected McCaskill’s claim that the school violated the District of Columbia Human Rights Act prohibition against discrimination based on political views. He said the provision applies only to affiliation with a political party.

McCaskill, who also sued Gallaudet for negligence because they allowed their employees to harass her — a claim rejected on technical grounds –has never publicly stated her position on gay marriage.

According to her lawsuit, the firestorm erupted in early October 2012 when Gallaudet University Professor M.J. Bienvenu discovered that McCaskill had signed the petition for a vote on gay marriage.

When McCaskill told Bienvenu she signed the petition at her church, Bienvue mocked her religious beliefs, the lawsuit says, without specifying the exact words.

Bienvenu and her partner Kendra Smith, also a faculty member, then allegedly told a website called Planet Deafqueer that McCaskill was “anti-gay” for signing the ballot provision, provoking similar complaints from some gay students.

McCaskill refused the school’s demand that she issue a public apology for signing the ballot initiative. Gallaudet University President T. Alan Hurwitz then suspended her with pay on October 9, 2012.

Hurwitz reversed course after he took flak from the Family Research Council, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and even a group working to defeat the ballot initiative.

When she returned to Gallaudet, McCaskill was demoted from deputy to the president and associate provost for diversity to chief diversity officer, says her lawsuit, filed September 27, 2013 in United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

J. Wyndall Gordon, McCaskill’s lawyer, told The Daily Caller that her case shows ballot petition signatories need federal protection against retaliation. “This was blatant intimidation of a voter,” Gordon said.

Gordon said he will not appeal the judge’s ruling on the discrimination claims, but will re-file the negligence claim.

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