Gallaudet University Diversity Officer Suspended for Signing Marriage Referendum Petition (Updated)
October 11th, 2012
Dr. Angela McCaskill, is a 23-year employee of Gallaudet University, serving as its chief diversity officer. She is also the first deaf African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. at the Washington, D.C. university for deaf and hard of hearing students. A blog, Planet DeafQueer, reports that an unnamed Gallaudet faculty member discovered that last July, McCaskill signed a petition to place a referendum on the Maryland ballot asking voters whether they wanted to overturn a law providing marriage equality that was passed by the state legislature:
A Gallaudet faculty member, who at this time wishes to remain anonymous, noticed Dr. McCaskill’s name, address and signature on the anti-gay marriage petition and inquired about it. When confronted by the faculty member, Dr. McCaskill confirmed that she had in fact signed the petition and explained that she had done so while at church, after her preacher had preached against gay marriage. As she was leaving, her husband pointed to the petition and she signed it without giving it further thought.
An official complaint was filed with the University last week by the mentioned faculty member and a meeting was held on Friday with Gallaudet University President, Dr. Alan Hurwitz.
Today, Dr. Hurwitz announced that he was placing McCaskilll on paid administrative leave effective immediately. Dr. Hurwitz took this action despite a Gallaudet spokesperson acknowledging that “We don’t have a policy against political participation.” According to Planet DeafQueer, McCaskill was an “ardent supporter” of Gallaudet’s LGBTQA Resource Center, leaving many LGBT students and faculty feeling “shock, disappointment, anger and betrayal” about her signing the petition.
Chris Geidner at BuzzFeed reports that D.C. law may add a complicating wrinkle for McCaskill’s suspension:
Under the D.C. Code, it is a criminal violation for “[a]ny person who … by threats or intimidation, interferes with, or attempts to interfere with, the right of any qualified registered elector to sign or not to sign any initiative, referendum, or recall petition.” The sentence for violating the provision can be up to a $10,000 fine and a year in prison.
…Because a Maryland law — and not a D.C. law — is at issue in the referendum, however, the D.C. Code’s criminal provision is not directly implicated. But, it could indirectly apply to McCaskill’s suspension through a civil lawsuit in which she seeks money or reinstatement.
Let’s remember what she did: she signed a petition. She didn’t write an op-ed or a letter to the editor demanding that gay couples not be allowed to marry. She didn’t stand on a street corner with a bullhorn, distribute anti-gay literature on campus or off, or even put a “No On 6” bumper sticker on her car. We don’t even know if she supports Question 6 or not. She signed a petition asking that an issue be placed on the ballot for a vote. And yes, signing that petition is a public act. Her signature is on a public document which is why it is part of the public record. But it’s only as public as it takes for someone to go through the effort of searching through 110,000 other names and addresses to find hers.
And here’s the point: Gallaudet doesn’t have a policy barring its staff from signing petitions. Some organizations do; journalists, for example, are usually barred by their employers from activities which can tie their names to candidates or causes. But because Gallaudet doesn’t have such a policy, McCaskill wasn’t suspended for signing a petition. She was suspended for signing this petition. We would jump up and down in fury if someone were fired for signing a petition supporting a pro-gay initiative. I don’t see this case as being any different, especially since, so far, I haven’t seen so much as a hint that her job performance has been in any way diminished before or since signing the petition.
Gallaudet students and faculty have a right to ask McCaskill some very hard questions. McCaskill owes them, as their Diversity Officer, honest answers and probably an apology, depending on her explanations. What she did deserves scrutiny. But an undeniable and fundamental feature of anything resembling diversity, it seems to me, must include dialogue and conversation, especially when these situations arise in an academic setting and especially in McCaskill’s case where she has established a strong track record in supporting the campus’s LGBT population. Hurwitz’s rash action has clumsily blocked all of that.
There was a time and there were places where people routinely lost their jobs (and sometime far worse) for exercising their rights to participate in a democracy as full citizens. Forty-eight years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, you’d think we would be past this by now, but obviously we’re not.
McCaskill is reportedly consulting a lawyer. I hope that Gallaudet and McCaskill can resolve this without resorting to the courts. But if they can’t, then I hope that the lawyer she found is an especially mean one.
Update: In an unusually rare convergence, campaign managers on both sides of Question 6 have issued statements opposing McCaskill’s suspension.