The State of Alaska has agreed to pay the lost wages and other damages incurred by former employee Keren Lowell, who was barred from her job at the Alaska State Council on the Arts after speaking out publicly in opposition to the Dunleavy Administration’s fiscal policies. Ms. Lowell, with the assistance of the ACLU of Alaska, had alleged that the Dunleavy Administration retaliated against her after she exercised her First Amendment rights.
“Ms. Lowell became a target in the Dunleavy Administration’s brazen crusade against Alaska’s dedicated public servants,” said ACLU of Alaska Legal Director Stephen Koteff. “While today’s settlement is a victory, there is truly no adequate remedy for the intolerable attacks by Alaska’s government on its own people during what was one of the most volatile transitions of power Alaska has ever seen.”
Lowell spent 8 years with the Arts Council before Dunleavy vetoed the agency’s funding on June 28, 2019, a move that resulted in the layoff of all agency personnel. After public outcry to save Alaska’s only public agency committed to development of the arts, the Governor reversed course. Most employees were allowed to return to work, but Lowell was not rehired.
In an email to Lowell, a state official told Lowell that her rehire was unauthorized because she had publicly criticized Dunleavy while she was laid off. Lowell, a longtime Alaskan artist and dedicated public servant, was devastated.
“When Governor Dunleavy defunded the Alaska State Council on the Arts, he also made similar severe and abrupt budget cuts across Alaska. Many of these cuts most directly impacted marginalized and already vulnerable people – like the elderly and Alaskans who depend on the Marine Highway for goods and services. When I posted my thoughts via social media, I was protesting this administration’s lack of care for these Alaskans. Using my voice is my First Amendment right, as guaranteed by the Alaska and US Constitutions. I would never have imagined that any administration would target and punish me for exercising this right. Settling this is a big victory, and my hope is that it helps cease this sort of retaliatory behavior from our government in the future. But in this settlement the state has admitted no fault, which tells me there is still work to be done to protect Alaskans from punitive and retaliatory actions, especially when they protest decisions that deeply affect the state’s citizenry,” Lowell said.
On Dec. 19, 2019, the ACLU of Alaska sent a demand letter to Dunleavy, notifying Alaska’s highest official of its intent to sue if the blatant violation of Lowell’s rights was not remedied. The ACLU of Alaska has been in negotiations with the state on behalf of Lowell ever since. This settlement was reached on April 13.
The state will pay Lowell $85,000 for lost wages and other damages.
“I am grateful for the support from family and friends during what has certainly been a challenging couple of years, and for the team at the ACLU for their guidance, persistence, and expertise as they worked towards this resolution to my appeal,” Lowell said. “I have had the opportunity to make several major life changes since July of 2019 and look forward to what the future has in store.”