Teachers sue university over free speech on campus

WASHINGTON (AP) — Four English teachers filed a $10 million lawsuit against Gallaudet University on Thursday, claiming they lost their jobs because they criticized teaching methods at the nation’s best-known school for the deaf and hearing-impaired.
The teachers said the school violated their First Amendment right to free speech when it did not rehire them after the school closed the campus branch where they worked, preventing them from pursuing tenure.
“It was just through the manipulations of people who disliked the professors’ viewpoints. They retaliated by denying (them) tenure,” said Debra Katz, one of the lawyers representing the four teachers.
University spokeswoman Mercy Coogan said school officials had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment on it. However, she said the school’s communication policy describes Gallaudet, a public university, as a bilingual community where sign language and English coexist and thrive.
The suit highlights a debate in the deaf community about how best to teach English to deaf students.
It was filed a day before Gallaudet’s commencement exercises, where Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., the presumptive GOP presidential candidate, was to speak.
Katz said Dole has not been supportive enough of bilingual initiatives. The school’s choice of him as commencement speaker “is indicative of the lip service the university has paid to providing a bilingual education for its students,” she said.
The four teachers, who have taught at the university from eight to 13 years, said deaf students learn English better when it is taught as a second language through American Sign Language as the first language. This works better, they said, because English has a different structure from sign language. The four said they used methods such as reading immersion and writing assignments in their classes.
They contend that other methods used at the university, such as when teachers sign as they speak, are outdated and ineffective.
Teaching English that way “is like attempting to use English words in French word order,” Dianne Falvo, one of the teachers who filed the suit, said at a news conference today.
Coogan said the school believes teachers should choose the best methods for their classes.
Joyce Campbell, a spokeswoman for Dole, said he is a long-time advocate of the deaf community and supports the community’s self-determination on the issue of sign language and English. She said Dole supports bilingual education as long as its purpose is to help students learn English in a timely manner.
When Gallaudet closed the branch where the four teachers worked last year, Katz said they were told they would have to go through interviews for entry level positions.
During the interviews, Katz said the teachers were asked many questions about their thoughts on bilingualism and the philosophical split on language instruction in the deaf community.
“We are here today to pave the way for deaf and hard-of-hearing students to get the respect, the support and the education they deserve,” Janet Gemmill, who is deaf and a Gallaudet alumna, said in sign language that was translated by an interpreter.
In addition to Gemmill and Falvo, the suit was filed by Janice Becker and Joanne Royce.
Gallaudet is the country’s only four-year liberal arts college for the deaf and hearing impaired. It gets most of its money from the federal government.