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Howell v. Millersville University of Pennsylvania

From January 2020 to June 2019
Millersville University of Pennsylvania (Public college or university)
Millersville, PA, United States

Identity of Speakers

  • Allen Howell
    Faculty/Staff
    Other

    Allen Howell is an associate professor in the music department at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, a public university.

Additional Information

  • Incident Nature:
    Classroom
    Other course-related event
  • Incident Responses:
    University administration not protective of speech
    Litigation
  • Incident Status:
    Dismissed
  • No protest Occured
  • Did not involve Speech Codes

Summary

Allen Howell joined the Millersville University of Pennsylvania music department as an associate professor in August 2014. Soon after, the school allegedly took actions against Howell on the basis of comments he made online and his request for a Title IX investigation, among other things. In response, Howell filed a Complaint in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania alleging, inter alia, a First Amendment retaliation claim. Howell claimed that he had been “highly critical of the governance of Millersville in general and of the Music Department in particular” on various blogs and other electronically sources. Additionally, while Howell was teaching a class, three male students allegedly harassed one or more of the female students in the class. In response, Howell asked the University to conduct a Title IX Investigation into the alleged harassment. As a result of these events, Howell alleges that he was (1) denied a promotion and (2) that his appointment as Director of Choral Activities was not acknowledged. The district court held that Howell failed to state a plausible claim for retaliation under the First Amendment because he had not pleaded facts sufficient to establish a causal link between the protected activities he engaged in and the retaliatory conduct he claimed to have suffered as a result. Citing Twombly and Iqbal’s heightened pleading standards, the court dismissed the Complaint with leave to amend. After Howell amended his complaint, the district court again dismissed, finding that Howell’s speech did not fall within the ambit of First Amendment protection because much of Howell’s speech was not on a matter of public concern. The court noted that for speech to be considered “on a matter of public concern” it has to “add to the debate on matters of public importance.” According to the court, “Howell’s complaints did not address such high-minded issues; instead, the content, form, and context of Howell’s speech characterize it as a personal grievance. He complained primarily about Department decisions to raise revenue for student activities and his treatment at the hands of his colleagues.” More importantly, the court held that even if Howell’s speech was on a matter of public concern, he could not prove that his protected activity was a substantial factor in Defendants’ alleged retaliatory action. Furthermore, even if Howell could show that his protected activity motivated the alleged retaliatory actions, the University could prove that they would have taken the same actions even if Howell’s speech had not occurred—defeating the First Amendment retaliation claim. On appeal, the Third Circuit quickly affirmed the district court’s holdings in a few short paragraphs. The court focused on the fact that much of Howell’s speech did not fall within the protection provided by the First Amendment. Secondarily, the court pointed out that there was no evidence provided by Howell that other instances of his speech spurred the University to take any adverse action against him. Following this ruling, the district court dismissed Howell’s renewed objections as moot in 2019, closing the case.