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Friday, December 26, 2008

Has UAB Become A Haven For Hate Speech?

Has the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) become so infected with Republican sleaze that it tolerates hate speech while unlawfully firing an employee who writes a progressive blog?

A growing body of evidence suggests the answer to that question is yes.

The latest comes from Greg Privett, an investigative reporter for television station WHNT in Huntsville. Privett reports on an anti-gay e-mail that was sent by Pamala Gibson, an employee in UAB's Department of Physiology and Biophysics, from her work computer. UAB spokesperson Dale Turnbough issued a statement, saying the university had "handled" the matter. But she did not say if Gibson had been disciplined in any way.

Privett also says a second e-mail--one that is filled with racist, profane language, and makes fun of President-Elect Barack Obama--appears to have been sent by a UAB employee from a work computer. WHNT still is investigating that incident.

(Note: You can see the video of Privett's report by clicking on the WHNT Web site, going to the "Top News Video" section near the top of the page and scrolling to the story headed "University of Alabama . . . ")

Regular Legal Schnauzer readers know that I was fired from UAB in May, after 19 years of service. UAB's written reasons for my firing are vague, but they appear to center on allegations that I used my work computer to write my personal blog, which focuses on corruption in Alabama state courts and criticism of the Bush Justice Department, particularly its prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman.

A number of interesting parallels exist between my case and these recent instances of hate-speech being sent from state-owned computers at UAB:

* Dale Turnbough, who is quoted in Privett's report, is the same individual who signed my termination letter. My former boss, Pam Powell, answered to Turnbough, whose title is associate vice president for public relations and marketing.

* Turnbough mentions UAB's Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) in her statement to WHNT. This is the policy that governs the use of UAB computers and networks. We already have noted that Gibson clearly violated the AUP, and yet it is unclear if she was disciplined at all. I, on the other hand, did not violate the AUP or any other UAB policy, and I've been out of a job for six-plus months now. By the way, it is not just my opinion that I did not violate any university policy. I sat through my entire grievance hearing, and saw my former boss, Pam Powell, repeatedly answer "no" when asked to provide documentation to support her claim that I should have been fired. That grievance hearing was tape recorded, so Powell's "answers" are preserved for posterity.

* UAB's Acceptable Use Policy states that any violations should be handled with the university's progressive discipline procedure. As defined in the You & UAB Handbook, that process is to start with an oral warning, then proceed (if necessary) to written warning, and finally possible termination. Immediate termination is reserved for serious offenses such as theft, fighting, showing up for work under the influence of drugs or alcohol, etc. Evidence in my grievance hearing showed I should not have been disciplined at all. But assuming that discipline was merited, it would have been an oral warning. Instead, UAB conveniently skipped the first two stages in its progressive discipline procedure and immediately fired me. Will UAB employees who used state equipment to send hateful and vile e-mails be treated in a similar fashion? Sure doesn't look like it.

* It's important to note that while Dale Turnbough served as UAB's "spokesperson" in the hate e-mail case, she was a central figure in my termination. Greg Privett has interviewed me at length about my termination, and I understand that WHNT plans to include my story in a series about Alabamians who have suffered under the Bush Justice Department. That series is due to run after the first of the year, probably about the time the Obama administration starts to make over the Justice Department.

* Notice that Turnbough did not grant an interview for the WHNT story, instead issuing a prepared statement. Imagine her trying to explain UAB's handling of this bigoted e-mail compared to its handling of my case. And she would have been forced to explain her own actions in my case, not those of some other university official. Is it any wonder that Turnbough didn't want to take questions from Greg Privett?

* Turnbough's quote that UAB cannot comment on a personnel matter is intriguing. The university seemed to have no problem commenting on my personnel matter. After Raw Story ran Lindsay Beyerstein's investigative piece about my termination, several Legal Schnauzer readers voiced their concerns to UAB President Carol Garrison. Garrison had UAB spokesman Gary Mans respond with a statement that my firing was based solely on work performance. Mans went so far as to post the statement in the comments to a story about my firing at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Isn't it interesting that Dale Turnbough can't comment on a "personnel matter" that involves use of UAB computers to send bigoted and racist e-mails, but the university was more than happy to issue a false and defamatory statement regarding my case?

Here is a question for taxpayers from coast to coast: UAB dips its snout in the federal trough to the tune of more than $400 million a year in research funding. You can bet that not long after the Obama administration takes over, UAB representatives will be approaching various agencies with their hands out. Dale Turnbough makes a six-figure salary, and Gary Mans makes close to that (last time I checked). Do they have an obligation to explain UAB's handling of "personnel matters" that involve the use of taxpayer-supported equipment?

And if this vile, racist, anti-Obama e-mail did indeed come from UAB--and I have information, which I've shared with Greg Privett, that indicates it is legitimate--how should Obama officials and supporters react if UAB takes no substantive disciplinary action?

Here's a final thought: It's undisputed that I was fired because I write a blog--on my own time--that has been supportive of former Democratic Governor Don Siegelman and critical of the Bush officials who prosecuted him. Contrary to what Carol Garrison/Gary Mans have said in their public statement--again, notice they repeatedly refused to answer questions about my case--I have an audiotaped conversation with a UAB human-resources director admitting that I was targeted because of my blog and its pro-Siegelman content. It's also undisputed that UAB's own grievance committee found I should not have been terminated, but President Garrison upheld my termination anyway.

Come January 20, Democrats are going to be in charge of the White House, both chambers of Congress, and the Alabama Legislature. And representatives from UAB are going to approach those Democrats and beg for dollars.

Isn't it about time that Democrats take a hard look at this southern university that protects hate speech while violating federal employment law at will? If UAB officials don't want to answer questions from reporters, shouldn't they have to answer questions from Democrats who are expected to help fund the university's endeavors?

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