Last June, Lisa Durden, a Black Lives Matter activist and an adjunct professor at Essex County College in New Jersey, exchanged blows with Fox News host Tucker Carlson over whether a Black Lives Matter chapter could request that White people not attend one of its meetings.
“You White people are angry because you couldn’t use your ‘White privilege’ card to get invited to the Black Lives Matter’s all-black Memorial Day celebration,” Durden said during the tense exchange.
Dr. Anthony Munroe, president of Essex County College said that the administration was “immediately inundated with feedback … expressing frustration, concern and even fear.”
Durden was terminated from her adjunct position two weeks after her Fox News appearance.
Since then, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, a civil liberties group, has been advocating for Durden. The organization submitted a request for records “comprising, reflecting, or referencing” the “feedback” cited by Munroe. After 174 days and five extensions, the college has failed to produce the records. FIRE’s attorneys escalated the matter by filing a lawsuit last week.
“This lawsuit is not just about a public institution ignoring its obligation under state law to release certain information to the public,” said FIRE Staff Attorney Brynne Madway. “This suit is also about Essex County College’s responsibility to be transparent about its termination of an adjunct professor who simply voiced her opinions publicly.”
Madway said that this legal action will “remind Essex and other schools that they can’t just ignore legitimate public records requests.”
Durden said that had never heard of FIRE until the organization reached out to her in July about its intention to request the records. She said the organization emailed her again last week as it filed the lawsuit.
“Once I read that email, I became energized and motivated around this thing called justice,” Durden said in an interview with Diverse. “When I saw that the organization has a track record for fighting for free speech, I was resurrected.”
FIRE sent its first public records request on July 13, just weeks after Durden was fired. Essex County College’s administration ignored the inquiry for more than a month. The college eventually responded with a request for an extension, but only after it received a letter from FIRE’s Director of Litigation Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon. New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act requires institutions to respond within seven days.
FIRE requested records, including administrators’ emails and communications, that were exchanged or distributed after Durden’s June 6th appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show.
In early November, after a fifth extension, Essex County College told FIRE it would produce the records by November 20th. That date came and went and no records were ever supplied.
“The college’s general counsel told us that it was due to a lack of personnel to respond to OPRA requests,” said Madway. “However, we were only told that after providing the school with numerous extensions.”
Essex County College did not respond to requests for comment.
Durden said she has hired a lawyer and is weighing her legal options. She said that she hopes that FIRE’s lawsuit paves a path for her to return to teaching at Essex.
“It’s a lawsuit that had to happen,” she said. “Someone has to make very clear, not just to Essex County College but to all colleges: you will not be able to take these unlawful actions against academics.”
Joseph Hong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org