Lawsuit claims Sinclair Community College violated employee’s speech rights

Lawsuit claims Sinclair Community College violated employee’s speech rights.

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Lawsuit claims Sinclair Community College violated employee’s speech rights.

Social media post espousing conservative views led to job suspension, ‘embarrassed the college,’ according to court complaint.

A Sinclair Community College employee placed on paid administration leave for reposting a comment to her personal Facebook account that supports her conservative views has filed a federal lawsuit against the school claiming her free speech rights were violated, according to a court complaint.

Melinda Helton, a Troy resident and administrative assistant in Sinclair’s Work-Based Learning Department, seeks in excess of $75,000 in damages and attorney’s fees. Sinclair President Steven Johnson and the school’s human resources director, Nathaniel Newman, are also named as defendants, according to the complaint filed Wednesday in the Southern District of Ohio.

The June 2020 social media post regarded matters of social and political concern, including racial equality, defunding police departments, protests and the issue of #blacklivesmatter versus #alllivesmatter. The post supported Helton’s politically and socially conservative views on the issues, according Helton’s complaint filed by her attorney Jason Matthews.

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On June 11, 2020, Helton received an email from Johnson criticizing the content of her Facebook post, according to the federal complaint.

“I found the very broad portfolio of ideas that you promoted via publication on global social media extremely concerning;” “you have indeed embarrassed the college;” and “I truly resent the fact that, with all going on in our world, our team and I have had to spend scarce resources on matters triggered by your social media post,” Johnson wrote according to the complaint.

The next day, Helton received a letter from Newman informing her she was being placed on paid administrative leave while the school performed an investigation because her social media post raised concerns about whether Helton “may have engaged in any discriminatory conduct,” according to the court complaint.

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Helton’s complaint contends the social post didn’t include racially discriminatory or derogatory comments, nor make any connection to her employment with Sinclair.

An investigation by the community college was later closed and Helton was reinstated to work, but was required to take diversity training. Subsequently, she claims her hours were reduced and her work subjected to unwarranted criticism, according to the complaint.

Cathy Petersen, Sinclair’s chief of public information, responded Thursday to the court filing.

“Sinclair places the highest priority on the safety of our college community. This situation arose in June of 2020 during a heightened period of unrest in our local community and across the nation and world,” she said. “Sinclair College followed its policies and procedures to ensure the safety of our students, faculty, staff and community. We respect the legal process and that is where we will address this matter.”

Matthews, Helton’s attorney, was unavailable Thursday to comment on the case, a representative of his law office said.

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