The Curious 'Sexual Harassment' Charge
November 4, 2009
East Georgia College has dropped an unspecified sexual harassment charge against an English professor who, ironically, had openly criticized the lack of protections for the falsely accused in its sexual harassment policy.
Two weeks ago, Thomas Thibeault was informed in a letter from John Black, president of East Georgia, that “the evidence” in the mysterious complaint filed against him in August “does not warrant the charge of sexual harassment” and that he was reinstated to his position, ending a nearly two-month suspension. Black and other East Georgia officials did not respond to requests for comment regarding this about-face.
In August, two days after openly expressing his concerns about the college’s sexual harassment policy, Thibeault says he was told by Black that he “was a divisive force in the college at a time when the college needed unity” and that his “long history of sexual harassment would be made public” if he did not resign of his own accord. When Thibeault refused, asking that the charges against him be detailed, police escorted him from the campus, and he was suspended from teaching at the college while “dismissal proceedings” took place.
Thibeault was eventually told, near the end of August, that the college had "sufficient evidence to support his suspension.” Throughout September, he repeatedly asked for a hearing and that the charges against him be enumerated, to no avail. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Higher Education also stepped in, widely publicizing the case throughout the month and openly condemning East Georgia’s administration for its handling of this case.
Black’s reinstatement of Thibeault two weeks ago is the first development in the case since August. Still, in the same letter in which he reinstated Thibeault, Black also openly and severely reprimanded him “for the use of offensive language and angry outbursts in your past interactions with your colleagues.”
Though no specific examples of such behavior were given, the letter warned Thibeault that he “may face further disciplinary action including termination” if Black receives “any complaints” about Thibeault’s behavior from colleagues.
“You must show better judgment and discretion in the future when engaging in discussions in the public work setting,” Black wrote. “The use of offensive language in public work spaces, including the public areas of your office suite, is not appropriate and will not be tolerated in the future. Furthermore, you must refrain from angry outbursts when interacting with your colleagues. You must conduct yourself in a professional and respectful manner toward all of your colleagues in the future.”
Thibeault said Black’s letter came out of the blue, noting that the charges against him were never enumerated and he was never given a hearing before the administration, as Black had noted was now possible in a prior letter.
Russ Willard, spokesman for the attorney general of Georgia, whose office was consulted by East Georgia for legal advice in the sexual harassment case against Thibeault, said the sexual harassment charge that would have led to immediate dismissal and the non-renewal notice Thibeault received from Black are “separate and unrelated matters.” He would not disclose any legal advice the college had received from the attorney general, noting that it was “subject to attorney client privilege.”
Assuming that the non-renewal notice stands, there are a number of legal options for Thibeault to consider, said Adam Kissel, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. He disputes Willard’s explanation that the sexual harassment charge and the non-renewal notice are unrelated.
“The president coincidentally decided not to rehire him for no cause at the same time of the sexual harassment charge,” Kissel said. “I don’t think any reasonable person could say that these two are not related in any way, given that he has good performance reviews, students like him and he’s well respected on campus. … If he’s not being rehired because of protected speech, then that’s an actionable offense for him to pursue against the college.”
Until the non-renewal matter is made clear, Thibeault said he is beginning to look elsewhere for teaching work. Still, he noted that if his contract is renewed, he would still like to teach at East Georgia, despite the difficulties he has encountered there.
“I’ll absolutely work at East Georgia if I’m able,” Thibeault said. “I work for the college and for the community. I don’t work for the administration. They don’t own the college, and they don’t own me. I have the right to work and not be harassed by my supervisors.”