In ACLU Lawsuit, ASU Loses In Court of Public Opinion


After Adams State University (ASU) reached a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the matter of Ledonne v. McClure et al, the parties each issued press releases to announce the terms of the settlement. But the press releases were so factually different in nature that many observers were rightfully confused and left to sort out the aftermath for themselves. In doing so, it became clear that while no party admitted wrongdoing in the matter of former faculty Danny Ledonne being banned from the ASU campus, the university clearly lost in the court of public opinion.

Upon satisfying the terms of the settlement, the ACLU issued its press release on July 25th with the headline “ACLU Wins $100K Settlement for Former Adams State Professor Who Was Banned from Campus after Criticizing the University” and clearly indicated that the campus ban at the center of the lawsuit had been lifted and that the ACLU would receive $100,000 to settle the case. This was a standard press release for the ACLU and included a quote from the ACLU legal director, lead attorney, and Ledonne himself.

Despite having almost a month since the mediation was held on June 28th, Watching Adams documented that, during the week of July 25 – 29, ASU issued and modified its own press release a total of three times. In the original press release, the headline read “Mediation decides in favor of Adams State University” and included the claim that “William F. Downes, a retired judge, oversaw the mediation and ultimately decided in favor of Adams State, after nearly a year of controversy.” The press release makes no mention of lifting the No Trespass Order or paying the $100,000 settlement amount.

Days later, these statements were removed from the university’s website and the headline was modified to “Adams State University satisfied with results of mediation.” And by the end of the week, several additional “clarifying facts” were added to the university’s press release, to which Ledonne responded on the Watching Adams article about the settlement.

But by then, the press covering this story had come and gone. Watching Adams documented the press coverage on the lawsuit and determined that no publication accepted ASU’s claim that it had “won” or its petulant insistence that the total paid was $2500 to the insurance company and refusal to acknowledge the $100,000 total sum, about $65,000 of which was paid to Ledonne according to a Valley Courier interview with ACLU Legal Director Mark Silverstein.

No press outlet took seriously the claim that Ledonne made “direct and indirect threats” or “threats of violence” or was on a “police watch list” that led to Ledonne being banned for “campus safety.” Alan Prendergast with Westword observed of ASU’s press release, “The statement does not explain why, if the ban was based on legitimate security concerns, those concerns are no longer an issue.”

Some outlets reported on the settlement with neutral language, such as “Adams State settles ACLU suit brought by ex-professor Danny Ledonne” (Denver Post) and “Adams State Settles Lawsuit From Banned Former Prof, ACLU For $100,000” (Westword). Even in these instances, the verb “settles” is applied to the university, whose actions yielded to the lawsuit’s claim of wrongful exclusion from the campus and a settlement for compensation.

Many articles recognized that the lifting of the campus ban and the $100,000 settlement was a clear victory for Ledonne, with headlines such as “Former instructor prevails in free speech lawsuit against Adams State” (Colorado Independent) and “Former Adams State Professor Wins $100K Settlement” (Pagosa Daily Post).

While the university insisted the campus ban was not retaliatory in nature but based on “campus safety concerns” (that it never attempted to prove in court), many press outlets never bought this claim and instead characterized the matter as one of Ledonne’s free speech rights. Headlines like “Professor Gets Settlement in Lawsuit After Banishment For Critical Blogs” (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) and “Former Adams State University instructor has prevailed in his free speech lawsuit against that university” (KGNU radio) exemplify this recognition. Some outlets went as far as to ridicule ASU President McClure for claiming Ledonne was engaged in “terrorism” with headlines like “Public university pays critical professor $100,000 for calling him a terrorist” (The College Fix).

An analysis of the comments left on these articles further demonstrates that nobody was buying the spin that ASU was selling. A comment on The College Fix article wrote:

ACLU CollegeFixComment

Several comments on the Denver Post coverage reacted to the university’s disingenuous claims:

ACLU DenverPostComments
One commentator on the Inside Higher Ed article went further, proclaiming that he would no longer advise his community college students to consider Adams State:

ACLU InsiderHigherEdComments

And a comment on the University of Oregon Matters blog suggested a slogan change for ASU:

ACLU UOMattersComment

Whether due to grossly incompetent public relations, a recalcitrant university president, or some broader institutional culture of false pride and petty mindedness, the university’s response to the ACLU lawsuit settlement is just the latest example on display of a university spinning – spinning out of control. More and more observers are seeing this deterioration in real time and recognizing that even the prerequisite of honest campus-wide communications are seldom found at Adams State University.