UPDATED 11:30 a.m. to include comments from UW-La Crosse chancellor Joe Gow
MADISON, Wis. — A University of Wisconsin-La Crosse employee fired for telling a co-worker that she supported President Donald Trump’s immigration policies could be back on the job soon, Wisconsin Watchdog has learned.
Kimberly Dearman, a law enforcement dispatcher for the western Wisconsin university, was fired this week on multiple charges, including “conduct unbecoming a university employee,” according to her attorney, Lee Fehr.
“Late [Wednesday] UWL admitted they wrongfully terminated her position,” Fehr said in an email to Wisconsin Watchdog Thursday morning.
UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow tells Wisconsin Watchdog that the university, on advice from University of Wisconsin System legal staff, has offered Dearman her job back. But the chancellor asserts that the employee was originally let go for making “racist comments.”
Ferh said his client is “considering options regarding employment.”
On Monday, Dearman was fired for a “comment she made in casual conversation to a coworker in response to Gow’s emails of January 30 and February 1, 2017,” Fehr wrote Tuesday in a letter to the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents.
In the first email sent to thousands of students, faculty and staff, Gow wrote that he was “shocked and saddened by President Trump’s order prohibiting refugees and people from certain predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.”
The email added:
“At such an unsettling time, we are writing to reaffirm our University’s commitment to support our international students, faculty, and staff, and our commitment to the values of international collaboration and engagement. Our students, faculty, and staff from around the world are an integral part of our campus community, and play a crucial role in our educational mission. Likewise, we want to reaffirm our commitment to ensuring a safe and inclusive campus environment for all individuals, regardless of their national origin, citizenship/immigration status, ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, ability and other significant aspects of individual and cultural identity.”
Gow also informed his readers that “except where required by law,” the university will not assist in “immigration enforcement or deportation of any individual, and [UWL police] do not inquire about or record immigration status when performing their duties.”
The letter did not sit well with many recipients. They complained. So did state Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, who said multiple constituents were angered by the letter and forwarded it on to him.
“The email condemns our President for the policy he believes will keep Americans safe,” Stroebel said.
Stroebel represents Senate District 20 in southeast Wisconsin. UW-La Crosse is not in Stroebel’s district.
Dearman was one of the critics of Gow’s letter. She told a co-worker that she supported Trump’s position on immigration.
“In summary, Miss Dearman stated to a coworker that she felt Trump was put in a bad situation,” Fehr wrote in his letter to the Board of Regents. “She felt Trump was doing the correct thing by keeping terrorists out of the United States. She felt that those immigrants should go back where they came from.”
“She was terminated because of her political speech in support of President Trump.”
The university’s human resources department found that Dearman violated the institution’s policy, charging that Dearman used “threatening or abusive language” and exhibited “conduct unbecoming of a university employee,” according to the termination letter.
In an interview Wednesday with Wisconsin Watchdog on the Vicki McKenna Show, Fehr said it is his understanding that his client merely expressed her support for the president’s policy and did not use threatening language.
Gow asserts Dearman’s speech was not political, it was racist. He said university found the comment that, “those immigrants should go back to where they came from,” to be racist.
“That’s what precipitated this event,” the chancellor said. He added that the comment was made to a “student employee of Asian descent.” He said he did not know if the student employee is an immigrant.
And Dearman, according to Gow, had “other performance issues” in her personnel file. He could not provide specifics.
“This racist statement was kind of the final act. This person is not a quality employee,” the chancellor said.
Gow criticized Fehr for taking the matter to the media. He said he was not involved in the decision to fire Dearman, that it was the university’s HR director. He said the system attorney advised administration there there were “things deficient here and that we should honor (Dearman’s) request to be reinstated.”
“We offered her job back,” the chancellor said. “We have not received an answer on what she wants to do.”
A UW System official directed questions to UW-La Crosse.
Fehr noted the apparent speech double-standard on the UW-La Crosse campus.
“It appears to be the position of the University of Wisconsin that Chancellor Gow and other leaders can send out emails to initiate political discussions, but it is offensive and abusive for employees to have a casual workplace discussion about emails initiated by the University Wisconsin System through Chancellor Gow and his leadership team,” Fehr wrote.
Trump’s January order sparked a firestorm of protests and stranded travelers around the world. It sought to bar refugees from anywhere in the world from entering the United States for 120 days. Syrian refugees were prohibited indefinitely. It also attempted to keep out for 90 days travelers from the terrorism-sponsoring nations of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
The order was blocked last month by a federal appeals court. An updated order this week was blocked by another court.
In his letter, Fehr noted what he described as Gow’s “history of attempting to squash the protected speech of students and employees who do not share his political views.” In 2013, Gow’s email critical of a 9/11 memorial outraged conservatives.
“I’ve been informed that the 9/11 flag display on the UW-L campus has been constructed in the shape of a cross,” Gow wrote to students, faculty and staff. “Although I’m not sure what the students who put up the flags are attempting to convey with this particular design, I also would like to remind everyone that UW-L is a state and federally supported institution and as such we do not endorse any particular religion. The divesity [sic] of views we hold is one of the most basic strengths of our country – something the terrorists sought to attack on this day 12 years ago.”
It seems supporters of Donald Trump’s policies were not included in Gow’s diversity-of-views umbrella, according to Fehr.
“If political speech is offensive and abusive, when can the citizens of Wisconsin and employees of the University of Wisconsin expect chancellor Gow’s resignation or termination?” Fehr wrote to the regents. “Will the taxpayer-funded University of Wisconsin protect the average employee’s right to comment on the political email sent out by the leadership of the University of Wisconsin?”
Asked to comment, Gow said there’s an important distinction.
“My emails were not racist, her comments were,” the chancellor said. “No one has a right at our university to express racist views.”
M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at [email protected]