Arizona State University and Rae’Lee Klein have agreed to settle a dispute that led her to sue the Arizona Board of Regents, ASU, the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and interim Dean Kristin Gilger.
Klein filed suit in October 2020. The U.S. District Court promptly dismissed her claims as to the Board of Regents, ASU and the Cronkite School. The court also denied Klein’s request for injunctive relief – a request that would have prohibited her removal as station manager of Blaze Radio – because she “fail[ed] to provide the Court with a basis to grant an injunction.”
In January, Klein submitted a notice of claim that signaled an attempt to continue litigation in state court and included an offer to settle for $500,000. A month later, Klein agreed to accept a total of $7,040 (as reimbursement for certain of her school fees) rather than continue to litigate this dispute. The parties also agreed that the case would be dismissed (with no admission of liability), and that Klein would not file any further claims.
The dispute began in August 2020 when Klein was a station manager of Blaze Radio, a student club at ASU. She posted a news article on her Twitter account, along with a comment expressing an opinion about the story.
Klein’s tweet prompted virtual meetings between her and scores of students responsible for running the station, other staff, producers and prospective club members. The meetings led the student board to conclude that relationships had deteriorated to the point that they lost confidence in Klein as a leader and the board decided to deny her further programming authority for the station. Klein then filed suit, alleging violations of her free speech rights under state and federal law. The court rejected her requests for an order prohibiting her removal as station manager. A new station manager has since been appointed.
ASU is committed to the pursuit of journalistic excellence that Walter Cronkite personified and the protection of free speech rights under the First Amendment, which are core tenets of the Cronkite School.
“But this case was never about the First Amendment,” attorney David J. Bodney of Ballard Spahr said. “We never attempted to restrict her speech. Indeed, she spoke freely throughout this controversy. Rather, it was her conduct after the tweet, which demonstrated her inability to lead the station, that ultimately led to her removal.”
Klein’s lawyer approached ASU regarding a settlement right after the favorable court ruling on the university’s motion to dismiss. Having already prevailed on much of the lawsuit, it made sense to settle. ASU refunded a small amount of school fees rather than spending many times that amount to resolve what little was left of the federal case in its favor, and then spend even more to get the same result in the threatened state court case.
As previously stated, this case was never really about the First Amendment. At its core it was “an employment case,” as the court noted. Indeed, Klein’s request for injunctive relief – that ASU be prohibited from removing her as station manager – had effectively become moot. The judge denied her application for injunctive relief, and ASU replaced her. To continue to litigate after such developments made little sense.