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University Lecturer Loses Free Speech Case

By William Vogeler, Esq. on November 30, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

After complaining about preferential grades for student athletes, a lecturer lost an appeal in his free speech case against a university.

Henry Lyons sued the University of Missouri-Kansas City for terminating his contract. He said school officials retaliated against him because he complained after they overruled his grade for a student athlete.

In Lyons v. Vaught, the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that university officials were immune from liability. Basically, the court said there is no free speech for employee grievances.

No Free Speech

For public employees, it depends on whether the employee speaks as a citizen on a matter of public concern. If not, the appeals court said, there is no First Amendment protection.

In Lyon's case, he complained that the university improperly gave a passing grade to a student athlete who had failed his class. Lyons unsuccessfully challenged the grade change, and the school declined to renew his contract.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association cleared the school of any violations, but Lyons filed his complaint in federal court. A trial judge ruled against the university twice, but the appeals court reversed twice.

The Eighth Circuit said it might have been different if Lyons had complained about a matter of public concern and not his job.

Public Concern

For example, the court said, environmental and public safety issues concern the general public. But Lyons complained about Chancellor Leo Morton about the grade change.

"If no student athlete had ever taken Lyons's course, or if his grading of student athletes had never been questioned, then his raising of the general issue with Chancellor Morton and others would be no different than another citizen raising the general issue," the judges said. "That is not this case."

The appeals court remanded the case with orders to dismiss it. The university said in a statement that it was pleased with the decision.

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