Court of Appeals rules against professor, in favor of UK party in due process case

Journalism professor Buck Ryan before a College of Communication and Information meeting with President Eli Capilouto on Friday, September 21, 2018 in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Natalie Parks

According to an opinion published by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the complaint of tenured professor Buck Ryan has been dismissed and the court affirmed the district court’s ruling in favor of three parties associated with UK administration.

Ryan, a tenured professor in the School of Journalism and Media, sued David Blackwell (current provost at UK), Derek Lane (former interim Dean of the College of Communications and Information) and Mike Farrell (former director of the School of Journalism and Media) on grounds of due process violations pertaining to a UK investigation into Ryan’s use of a book he wrote in classes.

Ryan also claimed that UK retaliated against him for refusing to resign and for speaking out on matters of public concern.

Judges Richard F. Suhrheinrich, Joan L. Larsen and Chad A. Readler heard oral arguments in the case on Oct. 9, 2020.

The opinion, published on Nov. 3, 2020, cites two reasons to affirm the dismissal of Ryan’s complaint.

First, the court rejected Ryan’s claim that his due process rights were violated. Due process is the requirement that legal matters be resolved according to established guidelines. According to the opinion, Ryan claimed this was not the case because he was retaliated against for refusing to resign and for speaking out on matters of public concern.

“He was given due process when the faculty committee conducted an investigation into his conduct and made its recommendation not to terminate Ryan’s employment. Blackwell’s statement to the press was not a sufficiently chilling action that it would deter a person of ordinary firmness from refusing to resign, and therefore cannot be considered retaliation,” the appellate opinion read in the matter of resignation.

The appellate opinion also concluded that the subject of Ryan’s complaints against the university is not a matter of public concern.

“Without more detail that would suggest broader public concerns, Ryan’s complaint seems to allege only the type of speech that squarely falls in the realm of an internal employee dispute” the appellate opinion read.

Robert Abell, Ryan’s lawyer, responded to the Kernel’s request for comment.

” I would […] observe the incongruity between your interest, which I view as one to inform the public about significant matters, in [Prof.] Ryan’s and the court’s contrary ruling that [Prof.] Ryan’s situation did not implicate a matter of public concern,” Abell said. “I presume that the Kernel does intend to cover and report on matters of public concern and recognizes [Prof.] Ryan’s situation to be one. The court has departed from that reality in its ruling.”

The appellate ruling upheld a federal district court’s earlier ruling from November of 2019. Ryan has been embroiled in legal disputes with the University of Kentucky since at least 2018.

“We are pleased with the court’s strong and unequivocal ruling that Professor Ryan’s case was baseless and should be dismissed,” said UK spokesperson Jay Blanton.

The lawsuit heard by the appellate court stemmed from an investigation that concluded that Ryan unduly used his own textbook in one of his journalism classes by making it required for students to purchase. The lawsuit’s primary complaints are that the university used the textbook audit to retaliate against him for other actions and a subsequent statement from Blackwell that Ryan claimed was defamatory.

“What is most egregious about the audit’s findings is the fact that Professor Ryan stole from students. And he used university resources to do it,” Blackwell told the Lexington Herald-Leader in 2018. Ryan filed his lawsuit in the spring of 2019.

At that time, Ryan was no longer teaching, despite being a tenured professor. The College of Communication and Information announced in November of 2018 that Ryan would not teach the following spring. 

Ryan filed a second lawsuit against UK and a student in the spring of 2019 over a Title IX complaint

Read the full opinion here: