This morning, the ACLU of Alaska sent a demand letter to Governor Michael J. Dunleavy, on behalf of former Alaska State Council on the Arts Visual and Literary Arts Program Director, Keren Lowell. Ms. Lowell lost her job after the governor eliminated the Council as part of a series of unprecedented budget cuts. When funding was restored weeks later, Ms. Lowell was denied rehire in retaliation for exercising her First Amendment rights.
Ms. Lowell, a proud Alaskan with more than 25 years of experience in fine arts, voiced her concerns regarding Governor Dunleavy’s policies on social media. She, like tens-of-thousands of other Alaskans, was deeply concerned with the detrimental impact these drastic policy shifts would have on community members across the state. And she, with thousands of others, supported the recall campaign against the governor.
“She did not bid her freedom of speech goodbye when she obtained state employment, nor did she give up her fundamental right during the rehiring process,” ACLU of Alaska Legal Director Stephen Koteff said. “She disagreed with Governor Dunleavy’s fiscal management and was punished by those in power for exercising her inherent right.”
Funding for the Arts Council was eliminated with Governor Dunleavy’s line item veto on June 28, and the Council was liquidated. Subsequently, four staff members, including Ms. Lowell, lost their jobs. Weeks later, the Legislature passed a renewed spending bill that allocated funding to reinstate Alaska’s only public agency dedicated to enhancing the arts.
Efforts to rehire the Council staff began immediately, with the quick rehire of its executive director. Ms. Lowell was approached, soon after, with the Council eager for her to get back to work. She was transparent about her position regarding the governor and was reassured that her expression of free speech would not hinder her ability to be rehired and to serve Alaskans once again.
Much to her surprise, and devastation, Ms. Lowell was denied rehire on Sept. 30, 2019. Despite positive reviews from her former colleagues and peers, and work that elevated the Council’s opportunities and reach in and outside of Alaska, she was told in an email that her application would not move forward because of “statements [she] made on social media about the governor.”
Clearly established legal precedent prohibits public employers from retaliating against people like Ms. Lowell, simply because they have opinions that differ from those in power.
On behalf of Ms. Lowell, the ACLU of Alaska is seeking to have the ill-informed decision to block her rehire reversed, and to have the State of Alaska compensate her for the harms suffered by this blatant disregard for the Constitution.