DEI leader who condemned ‘woke do-gooders’ files free speech suit against Bay Area college

DEI leader who condemned ‘woke do-gooders’ files free speech suit against Bay Area college

The following article was first published by the SF Chronicle in July of 2023. Attorney Abby  Moscatel is local counsel for Tabia Lee.

DEI leader who condemned ‘woke do-gooders’ files free speech suit against Bay Area college

The Black woman who was fired by De Anza College as director of its diversity office — an office she criticized as overly “woke” — has filed a free-speech suit against the school.

Tabia Lee “stood up for free speech, academic freedom, humanism, and equal treatment for all students and faculty, regardless of race,” and “refused to knuckle under to campus orthodoxy,” a lawyer for Lee declared in a lawsuit filed Monday in federal court in San Jose.

As a result, the suit said, Lee “was accused of ‘Whitesplaining’ and not being the ‘right kind of Black person’ ” and was dismissed after less than two years at the college of 16,000 students in Cupertino. She seeks reinstatement, reimbursement for lost pay and punitive damages.

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One of Lee’s lawyers, Michael Thad Allen, and his firm have represented other academics who say they have been punished for questioning excessive campus policies favoring racial minorities and LGBTQ rights, practices that conservatives have labeled “cancel culture.”

For example, one of Allen’s clients, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida, was fired in 2021 for alleged classroom misconduct, seven months after tweeting that “Black privilege is real” and that Black people “are missing out on much-needed feedback” after nationwide protests of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The teacher was reinstated by an arbitration panel and is now suing the school for violating his freedom of speech.

Another client, a former instructor at St. Philip’s College in Texas and a self-described conservative, is suing the school for removing him after a student reported — falsely, according to the instructor — that he had said pedophilia was widespread in the LGBTQ community.

Lee “has been canceled at De Anza,” Allen said Thursday. “She stood up for civil rights, universal human rights, equal treatment for all students regardless of the simple accident of skin color or sex, or other ascribed characteristics so beloved on college campuses.”

Lee, who has a doctorate in education, taught middle school in Los Angeles for a decade, then developed courses at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont and the College of San Mateo before being hired in the summer of 2021 as director of the Office of Equity, Social Justice and Multicultural Education at De Anza. She is also a cofounder of Free Black Thought, an organization of scholars, parents and others who oppose many of the views of mainstream civil rights organizations.

Early in her tenure, Lee’s lawsuit said, she was assigned to moderate a campus talk by Alicia Garza, founder of Black Lives Matter, and encouraged students to ask questions of Garza, even though Lee’s faculty overseers had forbidden any unscripted questions.

“At De Anza, Black women are expected to think the same (or to shut up),” attorney Abby Jane Moscatel said in the suit.

She said another staff member told Lee in 2021 that a Women, Gender and Sexuality Center at De Anza was considered a “safe space” for women of color, and that white people were not welcome. Lee responded that any campus facility should be equally available to members of all races and ethnicities, and the school’s response was “openly hostile,” the suit said.

After being notified of her dismissal, Lee told The Chronicle, “I think that’s why I was attacked from the beginning. Because I declared myself ‘not woke.’” In that interview, Lee referred to some employees at the school as “woke do-gooders.”

Lee also objected to the school’s use of the gender-neutral term “Latinx” instead of Latino or Latina. While De Anza officials contended that Latinx was more inclusive, the suit said a 2020 survey by Pew Research Center found that most members of that ethnicity had never even heard of the term, and only 3% used it, the suit said.

In addition, Lee accused the school of fostering, or at least tolerating, antisemitism. The suit said she was prevented from holding workshops on Jewish culture and remembrance, and that De Anza rejected her proposal to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27.

“‘Equity’ and ‘Engagement’ at De Anza does not include Jews,” Moscatel wrote.

A faculty committee, motivated by Lee’s “dissent from De Anza’s race-based orthodoxy,” recommended against renewing Lee’s tenure in May 2022, the suit said. It said college President Lloyd Holmes refused to dismiss her and ordered further review, but went along with her removal after another committee voted unanimously against her this February without observing her in class.

The college referred an inquiry about the suit to the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, which said Wednesday it would not comment on individual personnel matters. “We can share that faculty members have comprehensive due process and appeal rights both under the law and negotiated through their bargaining unit,” said Paula Norsell, a district spokesperson.