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Judge denies SFASU's attempt to end civil rights lawsuit

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TYLER (KYTX) -

A United States district judge denied a motion for summary judgment this week in the 2-year-old civil rights lawsuit brought against Stephen F. Austin State University by its former art gallery director over his alleged wrongful termination.

SFA's attorneys, provided by the state's attorney general's office, filed the motion for summary judgment on January 30, 2013. A motion for summary judgment essentially asks the judge to throw out a pending lawsuit based on a review of the evidence and a finding that the suit is not worthy of going to trial.

Christian Cutler, then of Nacogdoches, brought the suit in October of 2011. His claim is that he was asked to take part in an art show hosted by Rep. Louie Gohmert in Tyler. Cutler said he declined the invitation because his political views were not aligned with Gohmert's. He believes he was fired in September of 2010 because the university was politically motivated to make an example of him, having learned that he offended Gohmert.

"The Defendants' actions in terminating Cutler for his opinions of Rep. Gohmert and declining his invitation to jury his art show, telegraphed to at least the SFASU community, if not to a broader community of public employees, that they may pay a serious price if they do not graciously grant even personal requests from elected officials," Cutler's complaint said.

At the time the lawsuit was filed, Gohmert said Cutler was being dishonest about what happened.

"The President at Stephen F. Austin University has repeatedly asked that we host the competition at SFA," Gohmert said. "So, we had prior consent from the former art director to host the contest at SFA this fall."

Gohmert said Cutler was not being asked to be a judge, but instead for a date when the previously negotiated event could be held.

"[Cutler] is traveling around the country, misrepresenting what he promised, and that he let his politics get in the way of not only keeping his promise, but also doing what was good for the university," Gohmert said.

The university's motion for summary judgment laid out story that paints Cutler as a bad employee.

"From early in his time at SFA, Cutler clashed with other staff in a series of incidents that were not regarded as serious enough to warrant disciplinary action at the time," the motion said. "At times, Cutler's conduct was viewed as quick-tempered, rude, abrasive, and inconsiderate."

The motion also states that Cutler has no civil rights basis on which to sue.

"While the First Amendment protects Cutler's right to his opinion as a private citizen regarding Rep. Gohmert, under the foregoing authorities the defendants need not allow Cutler's private opinion to interfere with his effectiveness in his university job," the attorneys wrote.

Judge Rodney Gilstrap's decision to deny the motion for summary judgment was explained in a lengthy decision that appeared to be designed to tread with caution when it comes to Cutler's rights.

"To grant summary judgment...would effectively deny Cutler his opportunity to confront these Defendants in open court," Gilstrap wrote. "Such a right should not be taken away unless there is no material factual dispute to be determined. Such is not the case here."

Cutler's attorney, Timothy Garrigan, said the case is scheduled for trial in July. He believes the university's attorneys will file an appeal in an attempt to delay the trial.

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