ANNAPOLIS, Md. ― A civilian professor at the U.S. Naval Academy is suing the Navy, accusing it of violating his First Amendment right to free speech and chilling academic freedom.
Attorneys for Bruce Fleming said Thursday that the professor was denied merit pay and $7,000 in summer funding based on a 2014 reprimand. It stemmed from a 2013 classroom discussion, when Fleming prompted his students to consider the academy’s sexual assault program and the potentially one-sided burdens it put on men, at a time when the academy was part of the national debate over how to stop sexual assault in the military.
“Professor Fleming’s speech touched on matters of significant public concern, and not only private concern,” the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore said. “His statements were made for legitimate pedagogical purposes, and fall within the core of the First Amendment’s protection of academic freedom.”
Cmdr. John Schofield, a spokesman for the academy, declined to comment on an ongoing legal matter.
Two female students disagreed with Fleming’s comments in class. After Fleming sent emails to them and other students about what was said, the two students complained to sexual assault prevention officials.
Fleming was cleared in an initial investigation. A second investigation by a more senior academy official led to the reprimand. It found the professor’s initiation of conduct cases against the two students amounted to retaliation.
“Academic freedom does not afford a faculty member the right to use the classroom as a bully pulpit for his or her own social, cultural, and political views unconnected to the course material,” wrote Col. Paul Montanus. He was director of the academy’s division of humanities and social sciences at the time of the second investigation.
The lawsuit disputes a finding by the academy that characterized the actions of the female midshipmen in complaining to sexual assault prevention officials as seeking guidance. Instead, the lawsuit alleges complaints lodged with the sexual assault prevention office “were made in bad faith and with the specific intent to have the academy censor and punish Professor Fleming for daring to criticize the (Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program).”
Fleming has been an English professor at the academy for more than 29 years. He is known for being an outspoken critic of academy policies. For example, he has criticized the academy’s admissions policy relating to athletes and minorities.