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Gallaudet diversity official's discrimination lawsuit against school dismissed

A federal judge in Washington has dismissed the high-profile discrimination lawsuit of a Gallaudet University official who claimed she was unfairly demoted for signing a petition to put Maryland's same-sex marriage law to referendum.

U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg ruled April 14 that Angela McCaskill, Gallaudet's former chief diversity officer, had failed to show she had been discriminated against under the D.C. Human Right's Act -- whether for her religion, political beliefs or identity as a straight woman -- or that the university had acted negligently.

Boasberg also ruled McCaskill had failed to show she had been defamed by the university through the actions of two other employees -- Martina Bienvenu and her partner, Kendra Smith -- who McCaskill claimed had publicly made her out to look "anti-gay."

McCaskill -- who was "tasked with promoting a diverse and inclusive college community" at Gallaudet, including for gay students, according to court documents -- has maintained she signed the petition at her church because she is "pro-democracy," not "anti-gay."

J. Wyndal Gordon, McCaskill's attorney in the case, said Wednesday that he is reviewing Boasberg's opinion and considering follow-up action.

Paul Kelly, Gallaudet's vice president of administration and finance, thanked the court for its "diligence" in the case in a statement Wednesday, but said neither he nor the university had further comment.

McCaskill was first placed on administrative leave in October 2012 by University President T. Alan Hurwitz, who wrote in a message to the university community that it had come to his attention that McCaskill had "participated in a legislative initiative that some feel is inappropriate for an individual serving as chief diversity officer."

McCaskill's subsequent discrimination and defamation claims shot to the heart of the state's same-sex marriage debate at the time, just as opponents of the legislation were raising concerns that its passage would have unintended consequences, including the public smothering of legitimate opposition to gay and lesbian marriages.

McCaskill's image and story were picked up by opponents of same-sex marriage in campaign advertisements.

People from both sides of the same-sex marriage dispute also rushed to McCaskill's defense. Gov. Martin O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who supported same-sex marriage, called on Gallaudet to reinstate her. Marylanders for Marriage Equality, the group working to uphold same-sex marriage in Maryland, also defended her and her political rights.

The university and other critics, including students, voiced concerns her actions would compromise her ability to advocate for gay students.

Nearly 200,000 people signed petitions similar to the one McCaskill signed, successfully putting the measure to a referendum vote. (In that vote, Marylanders upheld same-sex marriage.)

McCaskill and other petition signers would eventually find their names published on the website of the Washington Blade, which calls itself "America's leading gay news source." (The Blade also first reported the dismissal of McCaskill's lawsuit, on Wednesday.)

After her suspension and administrative leave, McCaskill was reinstated at the university in a different position with fewer responsibilities, said Gordon, her attorney. A university spokesperson said McCaskill was suspended with pay.

McCaskill, who has described herself as the first deaf black woman to receive a doctorate from Gallaudet, remains employed at the university, though now as a professor, said Gordon.

Gordon said McCaskill was "obviously disappointed" by Boasberg's findings, but hasn't given up on seeking compensation.

"We all expected a different outcome, but it's court and somebody's got to win and somebody's got to lose," Gordon said. "The good thing about it is we are eligible for a second fight."

Boasberg dismissed the case without prejudice, which Gordon said leaves the door open for McCaskill and him to review the judge's findings and then refile an amended lawsuit if they want.

Gordon said he has no plans to file another lawsuit against Bienvenu or Smith, however, as he said Boasberg was clear in stating their actions were protected by free speech.

Regardless of the outcome of McCaskill's case, Gordon said he hopes it draws attention to the fact that people can have their livelihoods targeted for making a political statement -- such as signing a petition -- with no clear-cut protections under the law.

Establishing better protections for such actions is especially important in today's age, Gordon said, when social media can allow critics of political speech to create a huge uproar over an expression they don't like.

"Hopefully D.C. and Maryland will take a close look at this case and consider legislative actions to prevent something like this from happening again," he said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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