Home » News » University not immune for retaliating against cop who told press about mishandling of sex-assault case 

By David L. Hudson Jr., published on February 1, 2024

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University officials were not entitled to qualified immunity when they punished a campus police officer who spoke with a newspaper reporter about the alleged assault of a student by a faculty member, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.  Interestingly, the panel ruled that the case of Garcetti v. Ceballos did not foreclose the claim.   

William Ashford worked as a police officer for the University of Michigan-Dearborn beginning in May 2017. He previously had worked in the Detroit Police Department since 1995, including a stint working sex crimes. 

In February 2019, a University of Michigan-Dearborn student alleged that she had been sexually assaulted by a professor. The student contended that the professor had requested oral sex from the student in exchange for a grade adjustment. When campus police investigated the matter, the professor admitted inappropriate sexual contact with the student but claimed it was consensual. Ashford was not involved in the investigation. 

At some point, Ashford became concerned that the university police department was not investigating the case properly and forwarding all information to the Dearborn Police Department. Ashford wrote an anonymous letter to the University of Michigan Board of Regents about the case. 

Eventually, a reporter with The Detroit News contacted Ashford about the matter.  The Detroit Newswrote a story quoting a university staffer that the university was covering up the investigation. When queried, Ashford admitted that he was the person who had spoken with the reporter. 

The university police department contended that Ashford had engaged in conduct detrimental to morale. He received a 10-day suspension without pay. 

Ashford sued the University of Michigan-Dearborn, the University of Michigan, the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s police chief, and the vice chancellor. He alleged that he was retaliated against because of his protected speech. A federal district court ruled in favor of all defendants, finding that the universities were protected by the doctrine of sovereign immunity and that the individual defendants (the police chief and the vice chancellor) were entitled to qualified immunity, a doctrine that insulates government officials from liability for constitutional-law violations unless they violate clearly established constitutional law. 

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit reversed that ruling in Ashford v. University of Michigan. With regard to qualified immunity, the 6th Circuit reasoned that “Ashford engaged in private protected speech when he spoke with the reporter, and was retaliated against for doing so.” 

To constitute protected speech, a public employee, such as Ashford, must speak on a matter of public concern. The 6th Circuit panel easily found that Ashford’s speech about the alleged mishandling of a case of sexual assault by a professor against a student was speech on a matter of public concern.  

A public employee’s speech also must not be made in the course of his official duties, according to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos. In other words, the employee must speak more as a citizen than as an employee. Here, the appeals panel found that Ashford spoke outside of the chain of command, a key factor in determining whether an employee spoke pursuant to his official duties. 

The panel also focused on the fact that Ashford was generally speaking to the general public, not to his supervisors, when he spoke to the Detroit News reporter. 

The panel concluded that the right of a public employee to be free from retaliation for protected speech is clearly established: “Reasonable officers should have known that penalizing him for doing so would violate his First Amendment rights. Because Ashford’s rights were clearly established at the time he was suspended without pay, we hold that the officers involved in his suspension are not shielded by qualified immunity.”

David L. Hudson Jr. teaches First Amendment law and constitutional law classes at Belmont University College of Law. He is the author, co-author, or co-editor of more than 50 books, including The Constitution Explained: A Guide for Every American (Visible Ink Press, 2022) and The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (Thomson Reuters, 2012).  

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