Jury awards over $600,000 to professor demoted for criticizing easy college major

Jury awards over $600,000 to professor demoted for criticizing easy college major
Players vittle up after Auburn wins the Battle of Bowl Week during Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl festivities, 2017. (Image courtesy Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, Facebook)

A jury in Opelika, Alabama has awarded a professor $645,837 in lost wages, compensatory and punitive damages after a two-week trial in federal court. Economics professor Michael Stern had sued Auburn University for retaliating against him after he criticized the university for keeping an easy major so that athletes could pass without much effort. The jury found that the retaliation violated the First Amendment.

“I am very hopeful that my case can bring about a renewed understanding of the First Amendment and academic freedom,” Stern said. “I look forward to working with Auburn University to advance our educational mission.”

Stern’s attorneys convinced the jury that Joseph Aistrup, a former dean at the College of the Liberal Arts, illegally removed Stern from his position as department chair in May 2018 because he criticized the school for putting a disproportionate number of athletes in a “troubled” public administration major.

“Dr. Stern’s statements about the alleged clustering of student athletes in the Public Administration major were a motivating factor in Dr. Aistrup’s decision to remove Dr. Stern as chair of the department of economics,” the jury concluded in its November 15 verdict.

The professor proved that “Airstrup acted with malice or reckless indifference to Stern’s federally protected rights,” qualifying Stern to seek punitive damages, it said.

The university said little beyond saying it would respect the jury’s decision.

“Auburn University remains committed to protecting and supporting the free speech rights of all employees,” spokesman Preston Sparks said. “While we disagree with the outcome, the university respects the judicial process,” Sparks continued. “Beyond that, it is our policy not to discuss specific personnel matters publicly.”

Jonathan Turley, a law professor who has successfully brought landmark constitutional lawsuits (one of his lawsuits led to the courts striking down a law passed by Congress as an unconstitutional Bill of Attainder when it curbed a father’s ability to protect his rights in court), says the jury made the right decision.

“Professor Stern went public with his view that the university was using the College of Liberal Arts’ Public Administration major to offer athletes an easy education, particularly as part of the school’s famed football program,” said Turley, a professor at George Washington University.“The decision is a substantial victory for free speech.”

Tempers rose at a faculty meeting in February 2014, according to a pre-trial ruling that rejected a motion to dismiss Stern’s lawsuit. Professor Stern “had gained a reputation as a vocal critic of the College of Liberal Arts’ public administration major for its disproportionate number of scholarship student-athletes, particularly those in the football program,” according to that Spring 2022 ruling from U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins. “During the same time frame, Dean Aistrup also fired off an email to Dr. Stern rebuking him for his comments at the February 4, 2014 University Senate meeting concerning the substantial number of athletes majoring in public administration.” Aistrup’s removal of Stern in 2018 “was the last straw in what Dr. Stern categorizes as a campaign of harassment by university officials to discourage him from exercising his First Amendment rights to speak out against what he discerned was a scandalous academic major protecting star athletes.”

LU Staff

LU Staff

Promoting and defending liberty, as defined by the nation’s founders, requires both facts and philosophical thought, transcending all elements of our culture, from partisan politics to social issues, the workings of government, and entertainment and off-duty interests. Liberty Unyielding is committed to bringing together voices that will fuel the flame of liberty, with a dialogue that is lively and informative.


For your convenience, you may leave commments below using Disqus. If Disqus is not appearing for you, please disable AdBlock to leave a comment.