The Play’s the Thing…That Could Get you Fired



Jealous co-worker. Criminal charges. Destroyed evidence. This sounds like the makings of a great made-for-TV movie, but unfortunately, this is the sad reality for a Utah theater arts professor who now works as a car salesman.

Hell Hath no Fury like a Co-worker Scorned

In Davenport v. Williams, Case No. 2:17-cv-15-CW, 2017 BL 417648 (D. Utah Nov. 20, 2017), a tenured theater arts professor was fired after being accused of assault by a 17-year-old student in his introductory theater class. In an attempt to elicit a stronger performance from the student, the professor imposed “physical restraint” and “prior experience” teaching techniques, including having another student hold her shoulders back in a chair, having the student pound her fists into her acting partner’s hands, and having students touch her eyelashes.

The student’s parents reported the professor’s techniques to his co-worker – who disliked that his plays included profanity, violence, and sexual subject matter, and who had been denied tenure by a committee that the professor was a member of.  The co-worker – along with university officials – led an investigation against the professor in hopes of getting him fired, but after being jailed and a two-day trial, the professor was acquitted of the charges.

Dramatic Statements

The professor said that he was fired in retaliation for selecting and producing controversial plays. He argued that the plays involved matters of public concern and that he performed for a public audience, but the court held that his role in putting on the plays related to his official job duties. The professor has some discretion when it comes to his teaching decisions and play selection, but he works on behalf of and is paid by the university so it has the last word.

The Bad Guy Always Wins?

The professor also argued that his reputation was ruined and that he’s been unable to find employment in a university setting due to a press release and defamatory statements made by four university officials. Although all of the officials made false or negative statements about the professor, most of the statements were made internally, making them unpublished. Despite the district court dismissing three of the four officials from his claim, the professor may still be able to proceed against one official.

The chairperson of the board of trustees met with the county prosecutor in hopes of convincing him to file charges against the professor. The prosecutor didn’t believe that there was enough evidence to file charges, but the chairperson was able to change his mind after giving him false information – implying that the professor was immoral. These statements are different from the other officials’ statements because the information was shared with a person not connected to the university, with what can be viewed as malicious intent.

The Moral of the Story

Just when the “villain” thinks he’s won, the “hero” reappears and prevails. The professor’s speech may not be protected, but his interest in maintaining his good name may be. The trial uncovered over 2,000 emails that show that the termination process was unfair, and that the criminal investigation was tainted. The court also held that the professor may be able to prove that the chairperson and assistant attorney general conspired against him.

With all of the plot twists and turns, it’ll be interesting to see how the end of this case plays out.

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