Judges rule Galveston college violated rights of professor

John Suayan, Galveston Bureau Feb. 18, 2010, 5:50am

GALVESTON – Two federal judges recently ruled that the College of the Mainland trustees infringed on the First Amendment rights of a college professor and his wife when they refused to let the couple speak at a board meeting back in June.

Federal Magistrate John Froeschner explained in a seven-page document that the possibility that government professor David Smith and his wife Rona will prove that their First Amendment rights were violated during the public speaking portion of the June 22, 2009, meeting "appears so high that it all but dictates the disposition of their motion."

"In the opinion of this court, if this case proceeds to trial the Smiths will likely succeed on the merits of their First Amendment claim, regardless of how trivial the incident might seem in the grand scheme of things," the magistrate stated.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt echoed Froeschner's recommendations and imposed an injunction against the college.

The Smiths, who were represented by Galveston attorney Anthony P. Griffin, were consequently awarded the $1 they sought in litigation targeting the school and the trustees filed more than six months ago.

David Smith appeared before the trustees to address changes in policy, including one provision that calls for converting classified employees "at will."

The policy changes also dealt with non-renewal of employee contracts, grievances and the employees' rights to present matters to the board of trustees.

David Smith was vehemently opposed to the changes, according to the suit.

Court papers said that he attempted to have new items placed on the agenda only to have them repeatedly shot down by campus officials. When the professor did get a chance to speake, the board chairperson would not let him proceed, he claims.

Rona Smith went to her husband's defense only to be reportedly silenced herself, the suit says.

The Smiths subsequently sought legal recourse, stressing that what reportedly happened to them was unconstitutional.

The court is not at liberty to overlook even the most minor violation of the Constitution, Froeschner wrote.

The motion enjoins the defendants from violating their legal obligation to honor the First Amendment at board meetings.

They are ordered not to exclude the public from addressing the trustees during the public comment portion of board meetings on matters of public concern relevant to the limited forum on the basis of the content or viewpoint of their speech and limiting the number of persons who may take the podium.

Case No. 3:09-cv-00152

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