A U.S. District Court has denied Stephen F. Austin State University’s motion for summary judgment in Christian Cutler’s civil-rights lawsuit against the institution.
“The law clearly requires the court, in this context, to draw all reasonable inferences in favor of ... Cutler,” Judge Rodney Gilstrap’s order shows. “Having done so, the court finds that there exists a genuine issue of fact whether defendants conducted a reasonable investigation and, as a consequence, whether they reasonably found that Cutler was responding to a request from Gohmert’s staff in his official capacity as director of galleries at SFA. Such factual issue is material to and directly impacts whether Cutler or defendants reasonably believed that Cutler was responding to a request to jury an art contest as a private citizen or to host the contest at SFA in his official capacity. The court finds that such disputed material fact issues prevent (it) from granting defendants’ motion for summary judgment on Cutler’s ... claim.”
Cutler’s attorney, Tim Garrigan of Nacogdoches, said SFA wants to avoid facing a jury.
“The motion for summary judgment means they were trying to argue with the court that there was not enough evidence for Christian Cutler to win the trial no matter what,” Garrigan said. “So they are trying to avoid the case even going to trial. But the court denied it and indicated that, certainly, sufficient evidence exists for Christian to win the trial.”
Cutler alleges in an October 2010 complaint that he was fired by SFA in a violation of his First Amendment right to free speech after he refused to judge a high-school art show hosted by U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas).
About two months before his termination, Cutler said he was asked by a Gohmert aide to judge an art competition in Tyler. A week later, he said he saw a CNN interview between Gohmert and Anderson Cooper in which Gohmert referenced “terror babies,” and decided he did not want his name aligned with the congressman.
When the aide called back to confirm what Cutler said he believed would be his role as a judge, he declined, saying he believed Gohmert to be a sensationalist and a “fear monger.” At the time, Gohmert issued a prepared statement saying Cutler was not asked to be a judge, but instead to choose a date to set up the art and schedule the competition at Stephen F. Austin, instead of in Tyler where it had traditionally been hosted.
Ten days later, Cutler said he received a signed letter from Gohmert’s office, on letterhead, that had been copied to SFA’s president, Dr. Baker Pattillo. In a series of conversations and emails, Cutler said he tried to explain the situation, but was met with responses indicating it wasn’t so much about him as the relationship between the university and Gohmert.
Cutler’s lawsuit claims the defendants “cynically weighed their interests and determined it was more important to demonstrate their political fealty to Rep. Gohmert by terminating Cutler, an outstanding public employee, than it was to honor Cutler’s First Amendment rights to voice his political opinion and not personally associate with a politician he does not personally support.”
According to the complaint, Cutler was told on Sept. 27, 2010, that the board of regents supported Pattillo in Cutler’s termination, but that if Cutler resigned, he could obtain letters of reference to help him in finding another job.
Cutler gave Himes a post-termination resignation letter. He started work as director of galleries at the University of Central Missouri in February 2012.
“To grant summary judgment in light of the legitimate factual disputes identified above would not only be contrary to the binding authorities within this circuit but would effectively deny Cutler his opportunity to confront these defendants in open court,” Grilstrap wrote in his June 10 order. “Such a right should not be taken away unless there is no material factual dispute to be determined. Such is not the case here.”
The judge also denied the defendants’ motion for qualified immunity, a legal method by which some public officials are shielded from money damages in a lawsuit.
“Defendants argue that Cutler’s First Amendment right not to be terminated for his remarks must be ‘clearly established’ such that ‘it would be clear to a reasonable official that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted,’” the order shows. “Terminating Cutler for expressing his political views, when speaking as a citizen, clearly violates the First Amendment. Defendants knew or should have known that public employees do not forfeit their right of free expression as a condition of their employment. The court finds that defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law.”
Garrigan said a second court-ordered mediation was unsuccessful.
“It happened a couple of weeks ago, and it has resulted in am impasse. Hopefully, we proceed to trial at the end of July. I think that is when we are set.”
However, the defendants are expected to appeal Gilstrap’s order to deny their motion for summary judgment.
“SFA’s lawyer has said if this motion for summary judgment was denied that they would appeal immediately to delay the trial. It would go to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.”
Officials at SFA have said they do not comment on pending litigation.
The trial was set to begin on May 2 before the second mediation was ordered.