(CNSNews.com) - The issues of gun control and free speech dominate a lawsuit filed by an Oklahoma University geology professor who used a blunt sexual comparison to criticize a pro-gun control newspaper column and later was demoted for that and other perceived transgressions.
The letter that geology professor David Deming wrote to the editor of the Oklahoma Daily newspaper in February 2000 argued that the owner of an unregistered gun was no more likely to become a murderer than a woman who had not registered her sex organ was to becoming a prostitute.
The letter prompted 25 charges of sexual harassment against Deming, filed "by people I had never met," he stated in a subsequent column. And while those charges were eventually dropped, Deming believes the letter remained a sore spot for university officials, contributing to their decision to oust him from the Oklahoma University (OU) School of Geology and Geophysics, strip Deming of most of his classes and relocate his office to a basement lab.
Deming's federal lawsuit, filed in July of this year, argues that he was denied academic freedom and it seeks to restore his university position and privileges. The university is seeking to dismiss Deming's complaint and a ruling on that motion is expected soon, according to a press release from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the non-profit group assisting Deming.
FIRE states that when Deming originally threatened a First Amendment lawsuit against Oklahoma University, the sexual harassment charges were dropped, but that Deming's letters to the campus newspaper were used against him anyway, in the form of several negative job evaluations.
Deming generated more resentment with charges that the School of Geology's administrators showed poor judgment and a conflict of interest in hiring a professor with supposed business ties to the Geology department's director, Roger Slatt, according to the educational rights group.
However, unable on their own to demote a tenured professor, Deming's opponents turned to some of the university's top financial donors, according to FIRE, persuading them to threaten a funding cutoff if Deming was not punished. One such threat in November 2003, from a donor who had never met Deming, paved the way for the punitive actions to be taken, FIRE claims.
"OU's conduct in this case has been shameful," stated David French, president of FIRE. "University e-mails and documents illustrate a conspiracy to silence a colleague whose outspoken views challenge the norm at OU. This is a naked attempt to subvert academic freedom."
Among the documents that FIRE obtained in a public records request was a July 2003 e-mail sent by John Snow, dean of the College of Geosciences, to William Clopine, chair of the Geology Alumni Council.
"Somehow I have to convince Roger (Slatt) that he needs to ignore and then marginalize Deming ... As long as we keep our i's dotted and our t's crossed, all Deming can really do is make noise and cause a bit more paperwork," Snow's e-mail stated.
He also reportedly suggested in the e-mail that Clopine get supportive alumni to call Slatt and encourage him, because "all [Deming] really is a bump on the road [sic]."
In February of this year, Deming told FrontPage Magazine that he was not the only member of the faculty experiencing problems with Snow. He mentioned a letter that "the unanimous faculty of the Geology Department" had sent to Snow, questioning his respect for them "as a faculty and as individuals."
"When I questioned Snow's commitment to intellectual diversity, a colleague warned me that he expected Snow to 'put your severed head on a spike,'" Deming wrote in the FrontPage Magazine column.
"OU's scheming to evade tenure protections and rid itself of a consistent critic of the administration's policies and politics threatens any professor who relies on tenure as a guarantee of academic freedom," Greg Lukianoff, FIRE's director of legal and public advocacy, stated.
He added that he was dismayed that OU President David Boren, who initially supported Deming in the case involving the letter to the editor on the issue of gun control, "has allowed these reprisals to occur."
Boren, a former U.S. senator, was unavailable for comment, but has made remarks in the past claiming to be a proponent of freedom of speech.
"I believe that even in cases in which we believe that comments are unfair, insensitive, or in bad taste, the appropriate response is never to silence the expression," Boren told the Oklahoma Daily in April 2001.
CNSNews.com attempted to contact Snow and Slatt for comment, but each man is unable to respond as a result of a gag order in the case. The OU legal department was also contacted, but no one was authorized to comment about the case.
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