Professor fired backing Black Lives Matter on Fox News sues NJ school


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Lisa Durden says she was fired from her teaching job at Essex Community College in June after an appearance on Fox News that drew criticism from conservative viewers.
Kevin R. Wexler/NorthJersey.com

Lisa Durden, a former adjunct professor at Essex County College, is suing the college and its president claiming she was wrongfully fired after she defended Black Lives Matter during an appearance on Fox News last June.

During the show, Durden got into a heated exchange with host Tucker Carlson as she defended a blacks-only Memorial Day celebration.

“You white people are angry because you couldn’t use your white privilege card to get invited,” she said.

The clip was shared widely online, and Durden was bombarded with online complaints, hate mail and even death threats.

Durden, a television and radio host and commentator, didn’t claim to be speaking for Essex County College and didn’t identify herself as a professor when she went on Fox. But within two days of the appearance, the college suspended her from her teaching job. Two weeks later, she was fired.

In the lawsuit, filed April 9 in the Essex County Superior Court, Durden claimed that the college violated her rights under the state constitution and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act. She is seeking damages, back pay and reinstatement.

“My civil rights have a right to be preserved,” said Durden.

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College spokesman Wayne Yourstone responded in an email that the college “does not comment on ongoing litigation.”

He added, “The matter involving Ms. Durden was handled in a lawful manner consistent with her status as an adjunct.”

Only one complaint to college

Durden’s lawsuit was filed at a time when professors have been increasingly scrutinized and punished for political opinions they express, even outside the classroom. The trend has been fueled by a tense political climate and outrage that’s expressed, in most cases anonymously, on social media platforms.

Free-speech advocates say the backlash is coming from both ends of the political spectrum, and that colleges and universities are overreacting and sometimes breaking the law when they punish employees for political speech.

The college’s president, Anthony Munroe, said he decided to fire her because the school was “immediately inundated with feedback from students, faculty and prospective students” who expressed “fear” about that her comments would have a negative impact on campus. 

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonpartisan, anti-censorship organization, sued the college in January for access to records related to her dismissal after they failed to respond to open records requests. The college eventually produced 194 pages of emails.

Despite online comments against Durden, the records indicated the college itself did not receive any complaints when they decided to act against Durden. For the first 13 days after Durden’s appearance, only one person contacted the college to complain, according to FIRE.

Even if there were complaints, that alone wouldn’t be grounds for termination because employees of government institutions retain First Amendment rights to speak as private citizens, according to FIRE.

“The law under the First Amendment is clear: A public college cannot terminate a professor simply because she engaged, in a personal capacity, in a debate about matters of public concern and some were offended by her perspective,” Ari Cohn, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, said previously about Durden’s case.

Civil rights denied: attorney

Leslie Farber, Durden’s attorney, said that “disapproving of speech doesn’t mean you can deny someone civil rights.”

“These kinds of actions by government institutions are really chilling people’s speech and makes them hesitant to speak out and exercise their rights guaranteed in the federal and state constitutions,” said Farber, who is based in Montclair.

At the college, Durden taught Mass Communication and Popular Culture and a second class called Effective Speech at the college. She was hired for her expertise as a media professional and couldn’t believe she was fired for doing her job, she said.

She was brought on, she said, as a subject matter expert, “no different from Nancy Grace or Jeanine Pirro.” 

“I didn’t find I did anything wrong there or incorrect there,” she said. “The reason they hired me, they hired me because I was a media professional.”

In addition to civil rights violations, Durden is also suing over breach of contract.

 

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